Brexit and Clinical Trials_Part 2

brexitWhat are the implications and consequences of the Brexit vote for the pharmaceutical and MedTech industries so close to the heart of most reading this piece? Many in these industries and in academic research establishments argued that a Brexit vote would be damaging for research and patient access and change the way drugs and medicines are tested and marketed; worryingly, two US companies intimated to the National Eczema Society that trials of new treatments would not take place in the UK in the event of Brexit.  Other campaigners, criticising ponderous bureaucratic nature the European Medicines Agency (EMA), have said that drugs could be made available more quickly if the UK votes to leave.

Whilst every EU member state has its own medical regulatory body (’Competent Authority’ – this being the MHRA in the UK) able to license new drugs, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) is currently a centralised body staffed and run by regulators from all EU member states providing marketing authorisation that is valid throughout all member states and countries in the European Economic Area (EEA i.e. EU plus Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway).  Now, the EMA happens to be based in London, so the question is what happens given that the country with the EMA HQ is no longer to be a member?  It seems more than likely that the EMA will have to move its HQ out of London to an EU country. Apart from this obvious major upheaval, some in the pharmaceutical world argue that this will in itself reduce the importance of the UK in the eyes of the global drug companies.

If the UK decides to negotiate to stay in the EEA (a likely scenario?) there should not, in practice, be much difference to regulation. But if the UK stays out of the EEA, drug companies would need to go through a separate process with British regulators for new products without the benefit of a centralised European route.  However, UK drug and device companies will certainly want to market their products internationally, whatever happens to the infrastructure of the regulatory bodies and their internal procedures.  Thus it seems most logical that trials in the ‘independent’ UK must continue to run along the same guidelines as the rest of Europe. All procedures must still remain entirely compatible so that the EU could agree authorisation for marketing UK drugs and devices – one can argue that accepting this premise should mean no major changes in procedures and counter some expectations that not being an official part of EU-harmonisation might jeopardise the currently high degree of involvement in rare disease trials (the UK conducts around 40% such trials) as well as appeasing non-UK companies reluctant  to perform trials in the UK following Brexit.

There is also a move for even closer harmonisation within remaining EU states over the next few years to allow a single EU-central entry point for companies to apply for clinical trial authorisations (CTAs). Currently, of course each country still ‘competes’ to obtain their own CTA from Competent Authorities to local procedures.  Without care, this could distance the UK from EU regulations and trials conducted therein.

The Leave campaign argued that the existing EU Clinical Trials Directive has damaged medical research and innovation in the UK. For example, the UK Commons Science and Technology Committee said in a recent report: “Weaknesses in the 2001 Clinical Trials Directive significantly increased the administrative burden and cost of running academic clinical trials and saw a reduction in trials taking place in Europe.”  It did then acknowledge that the new regulations due to take effect in 2018 appeared to be an improvement [2].

There are legal aspects to consider: EU Directives governing medicinal products require the UK to implement relevant legislation into national law (done by reference to the European Communities Act of 1972 and through the implementation of the Human Medicines Regulation of 2012). The UK’s departure from the EU would mean these laws remain in place unless the UK government decided to change them.  Also, if the UK adopts national legislation that is significantly different to the new EU Regulation, this is likely to make the environment difficult for companies wanting to undertake trials in a number of countries that includes the UK.

Few would disagree that the result of the referendum vote is important for drug and MedTech companies and their products.  What of the reactions from some regulatory and official bodies?  Do these cast any light on future developments?  The MHRA, in their response, have said that they would work closely with the government to ‘consider the implications for the work of the Agency’ and to ‘continue to make a major contribution globally to improving public health through the effective regulation of medicines and medical devices, underpinned by science and research’ [3].   The statement from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (APBI) says that they ‘are committed to working closely with the government to agree what steps need to be taken to send a strong signal that the UK is open for business [4].

The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries & Associations (EFPIA) has said that it ‘shares the common goal of ensuring rapid access to innovative medicines for patients across Europe, as well developing a regulatory and policy environment that fosters innovation and supports the research and development of new medicines to meet the needs of patients, healthcare systems and society.  As an industry, over the coming months, we are committed to engaging with stakeholders both in Europe and in the UK to support these objectives’ [5].

Clearly nothing is clear among ‘the powers that be’ about the effects of all this and what will happen at this stage! There is still much conjecture, and given that the EFPIA has also rightly said that ‘The process of the UK leaving the European Union is likely to be long and complex. The pharmaceutical industry stands ready to work closely with governments and EU institutions to minimise its impact on patients and secure the future of medical innovation across Europe’, there is much to discuss and plans are yet to be put in place.  Trials will go on in Europe and, of course, in other territories not embroiled in the EU and its regulations. As for EU developments, it really is a case, to put it in medical terms, of ‘watchful waiting’…….

Brian Cary


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