Business minister Nadhim Zahawi hit out after it emerged that the United States had struck a deal with pharma giant Gilead to purchase almost its entire production of Remdesivir for the next three months.
Downing Street backed the minister on the need for countries and drugs firms to be “collaborating” rather than competing, as it revealed the UK had already stockpiled its own supply of the anti-viral treatment for NHS patients.
No.10 also said that the UK was opposed to the exploitation of potentially life-saving drugs for “financial gain” and stressed that countries should work together to beat the pandemic.
Remdesivir is authorised in the US as a possible treatment for patients with coronavirus, although its impact on death rates is far from proven. The only other NHS approved drug treatment is the steroid dexamethasone.
US health secretary Alex Aza announced on Tuesday night that “President Trump has struck an amazing deal” to buy 500,000 courses of the drug, equivalent to 100% of Gilead’s output for July and 90% for August and September.
Remdesivir has until now been given out free by Gilead to other countries, but that deal has come to an end and developed nations will be charged £320 per treatment.
Zahawi told Sky News: “By attempting to compete, I think we ultimately undermine all of our strategies. Much better to work together than to work to undermine each other.”
He added that the UK was trying to “actually deal with pandemic in a way that helps all of the world”.
Asked about Zahawi’s remarks, the prime minister’s official spokesperson said: ”We are collaborating with all of our allies on researching, developing and purchasing Covid-19 treatments.
“If we have medicines in the UK which were needed, they would not be diverted to other countries for financial gain.”
He stressed: “The UK has been using Remdesivir for some time, first in trials and now in the Early Access to Medicine scheme. The UK currently has a sufficient stock of Remdesivir.”
One government source told HuffPost UK that governments had to collaborate on Covid-19, just as they had successfully on the GAVI campaign to provide vaccines for other diseases across the world.
Health secretary Matt Hancock has described the use of Remdesivir on Covid patients as the “biggest step forward in the treatment of coronavirus since the crisis began”.
Britain has acted swiftly in recent months to stop firms profiteering and banned the export of drugs such as dexamethasone, a cheap steroid that is showing early signs of having a big impact on death rates of patients on ventilators.
Zahawi said: “We deliberately made sure that we had enough stock of dexamethasone, rightly so. But we also want to cooperate because the best outcome for the whole world is that we work together.”
He pointed to deals struck by AstraZeneca to ensure global access to a possible vaccine being developed by it and Oxford University.
Trump has throughout the pandemic tried to use the US’s size and wealth to dominate the coronavirus drugs market and outbid other countries when a new treatment appears.
French pharma firm Sanofi said in May that America would get its coronavirus vaccine first, but was forced to retract following pressure from the French government.
Oxford Professor Peter Horby, who chairs the new and emerging respiratory virus threats advisory group (Nervtag), said manufacturer Gilead would be under “certain political pressures locally” as a US company.
“It does raise two very important questions: what is a fair price for a drug and what is fair access to a drug? Those are common issues but are particularly important in a global crisis like this,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“That’s part of the fair access question. The trial that gave the result that allowed Remdesivir to sell their drug wasn’t just done in the US – there were patients participating through other European countries, in the UK as well, and internationally: Mexico and other places.
“And I wonder how they would feel knowing now that the drug is going to have restricted availability in their own country, and would they have volunteered for that trial if they had known that?”