Our house guest’s question came out of the blue. Anne, who has known me for years, suddenly asked why I had stopped railing against the pharmaceutical industry. Were the companies suddenly behaving themselves? I replied with some inner satisfaction that since my retirement I was a changed man. Instead of living science and medicine, and campaigning against drug company misdemeanours, I now spent my time in the arts. Accordingly, I had neither the time for, nor any interest in, drug company indiscretions. She looked at me quizzically and I then realised that I had not been entirely honest. I had, in fact, been puzzling over one drug company issue, and her question has prompted me to put pen to paper, as of old.
On several occasions over the past weeks I have been wondering about the attempt by Pfizer to buy AstraZeneca. While AstraZeneca’s rejection of Pfizer’s “final” bid leaves the possibility of a takeover on very shaky ground, for me the questions raised when a giant American drug company bids to buy a large UK competitor are still worth contemplating. In the past I never felt any sense of patriotism with regard to the pharmaceutical industry. Indeed, once I went as far as openly criticising a British company for playing the patriotic card when promoting its products. But Pfizer’s attempt to buy AstraZeneca somehow seems to raise a new element in the patriotism spectrum, and one which deserves serious consideration.
In my mind the issue revolves around a hypothetical question: “If, sometime in the future, and in a world with different international alliances, we were subject to attacks with novel chemical or biological agents, how could we—the UK government—respond?” In fact, in such circumstances, the response would follow predictable lines. The agent itself would need to be identified, the way by which it brought about its effects established, antidotes (drugs) for combating its effects would need to be developed, and the new antidote would need to be manufactured and distributed. Obviously, to guarantee security in performing all these steps, everything would need to be undertaken within these shores.
Certainly UK university departments would play an important part in the process, but most of the key steps could only be undertaken by drug companies, whose expertise in these areas excels. That being the case, it would be sensible to be able to rely on British companies. Asking companies from elsewhere to carry out such work would seem inherently risky. Put bluntly, the two biggest British drug companies, AstraZeneca and GlaxoSmithKline, with their enormous intellectual, technical, and manufacturing know-how, would be an obvious combination to co-opt to help in the response. In fact, they would make a combination difficult to beat anywhere in the world.
If this is a realistic scenario, then moves like Pfizer’s potentially threaten our national security, and so would breach one of the key public interest concerns on which governments can block a takeover bid. Accordingly, the Secretary of State for Defence should intervene in such cases, arguing that the loss from UK control of such a strategic resource as AstraZeneca represents a security risk and one that we should not permit. In World War II we had to turn to the United States to develop penicillin. It would be best if we learned from that weakness and maintain the wherewithal to do business in house. As I see it, allowing British drug companies like AstraZeneca to be taken over would be a worrying oversight.
This blog was first published at greyhares.org here.
Joe Collier is emeritus professor of medicines policy. He was an honorary consultant at St George’s and professor of clinical pharmacology. He was also the editor of the Drug and Therapeutics Bulletin
Competing interests: The author has no competing interests to declare.