U.K. health minister blasts 'profiteering' pharma for trying to 'rip off taxpayers'

U.K. health minister Matt Hancock took pharma to task for its pricing in a new interview with The Times. (UK Parliamentary Digital Service)

Pharma may have allies in the Trump administration, but across the pond, the industry finds itself in the crosshairs of U.K. Health Minister Matt Hancock over a familiar topic: pricing.

In an interview with The Times, Hancock said pharma is trying to "rip off taxpayers"—and more. Using rhetoric The Times characterized as unusually tough for a U.K. health minister, Hancock  blasted "profiteering" by drugmakers on drugs developed with the help of government-funded research or National Health Service patient data.

The comments come as U.K. officials have hit a standstill with Vertex Pharmaceuticals over its cystic fibrosis drug pricing despite years of negotiations. Speaking with The Times, Hancock said he’s not going to let Vertex “hold the NHS to ransom." He called the U.K.'s latest pricing offer for Vertex CF drugs “incredibly generous,” and said the Boston company is “attempting profiteering off the back of the NHS.”

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Vertex needs to “accept the deal and supply the drug right now,” Hancock said.

RELATED: Vertex chief, thwarted by NICE, pressures England’s PM to play ball on drug prices

A Vertex representative told the newspaper the company “fundamentally” disagrees with Hancock’s characterization.

“We have made an offer to NHS England that is the best in the world, for all of our medicines and all patients, and their response has been to offer us a fraction of what other countries pay for our medicine,” she added, as quoted by The Times. 

Meanwhile, U.K.'s cost watchdog NICE has held firm against Roche's price for multiple sclerosis launch Ocrevus in a particularly tough-to-treat form of the disease. NICE again turned away the med in primary progressive MS in final guidance, prompting criticism from the drugmaker and a backlash from patient advocates. Roche U.K. general manager Richard Erwin said in a statement that patients suffering from the “highly disabling” disease “urgently deserve access to the first and only licensed treatment” that has shown it can slow progression.

RELATED: Roche raises an outcry as cost watchdogs spurn Ocrevus—again—in tough-to-treat MS

Primary progressive multiple sclerosis affects about 12,600 people in the U.K., according to NICE. Cystic fibrosis affects more than 10,000, according to the Cystic Fibrosis Trust.

U.K. drug cost watchdogs turn away a significant number of drugs after an initial review. After further negotiations, however, drugmakers have had success winning recommendations for coverage. Novartis, for its part, recently won a recommendation for new CAR-T med Kymriah at a list price of £282,000 after its initial assessment. That came after Gilead's competing Yescarta failed to secure a recommendation in the first round of reviews.