Omicron: a poor treatment for the poor | Jamie Doward

White people also given privileged access to world’s scarce drug

The emergence of Omicron highlights the failure of rich nations to share doses with the developing world

Despite the prominence of the concept of “supply and demand” in the formulation of policies, the landmark legal ruling this week in Britain has put a question mark over this so-called “efficient model”.

The Hutton family and the Daily Mail made use of this model to help bankrupt frail old people with multi-million pound legal judgments and British public money was frittered away with no real commitment to the older population.

And now we are finding out that some rich white people with no apparent health needs are allocated priority access to a generic drug that could dramatically improve outcomes for those with rare conditions.

But I don’t think these people qualify for “dignity and worth” as some have claimed. And I don’t think they should be entitled to the same treatment as other generations.

This drug has been demonised as a threat to the rights of people with rare diseases and its distribution on a priority basis. This is why the drug companies and their allies in the drug lobby tried so hard to block this drug. But that is far from the whole story.

A drug whose supply is controlled by drug companies needs a “price cap” to protect its market. This was exactly what the authorities imposed on cannabis back in the 1970s, where we discovered the medical benefits of the plant.

Omicron reduces relapse in HIV patients, including people living with dementia. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

The price cap protected companies’ access to patients and that is why they decided to meet and cut a deal over the price of this drug.

Omicron was designed to treat the brain inflammation that afflicts patients with HIV and other conditions. The drug, which is known as lixisenatide, reduced relapse in patients living with dementia. The cost of the drug was first set at £7,000 per patient in the UK, but it was dramatically reduced under the government scheme.

As a price cap is seen as a benefit, drug companies then fight to get the cost down even more. They have found ways of using clever marketing and that is why drug companies fought so hard to get the price capped for the treatment.

Now this breakthrough drug has now been granted rights to the UK by the European medicines agency and is scheduled to launch in the UK before the end of this year.

It will be sold under the name Omicron – yet again in-fill the middle-class gap in the NHS. White people will be getting a much better deal than the mainly African and black patients who need it most.

If the government had devoted the attention and funding that it gives to high drug prices to these people, they would be far better off than the sick and vulnerable who depend on state-sponsored health services.

The UK already spends between £700m and £1bn a year on drugs for rare conditions that affect just 250,000 people in this country. It makes no sense to prioritise treatment for the rich and famous. It just reinforces the unfair hierarchies that exist in our society.

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