The Brexit culture wars are back. On Saturday, the Guardian published an article entitled: 'Brexit means coronavirus vaccine will be slower to reach the UK.' As usual with such pieces, the words 'if' and 'could' do more heavy lifting than Atlas.
The gist of the article's argument is that leaving the European Medicines Agency (EMA) means the UK will no longer be able to benefit from processes that expedite the authorisation of pharmaceuticals for use. This is because manufacturers may decide to meet the approval process for the much larger EU market first before applying to the UK regulator for approval here. That might be true, but only if the UK sets its own regulations in this way. There is an alternative to this approach, which the authors recognise briefly:
'The UK could, in theory, choose to recognise any approval decision made by the EMA to prevent delays, but this seems at odds with the UK government’s pledge to ‘take back control’.'
And there we have it. Apparently, faced with a raging pandemic, the UK government would refuse to use a vaccine licensed for use elsewhere because it doesn’t fit with a slogan.
The obvious point here is that recognising the EMA's decision would not be 'rule-taking'. Rule-taking would be being refused permission by someone else to use a drug that another regulator had approved for use, as is the case in EU member states.
In reality, the government could follow Singapore and recognise any pharmaceuticals that have been approved by any of the principle regulatory agencies: The US FDA, the Australian TGA, the EMA, Health Canada, or, indeed, the UK’s MHRA, following a six-week verification evaluation.
This is the 'mutual recognition' model of global trade, beloved of free-market Brexiteers like Daniel Hannan. It works by recognising that other governments have systems that achieve the same objective, for example ensuring that medicine is safe for use. Just as people visit the USA and Australia and find the food safe to eat and the medicine safe for use, why shouldn’t you simply be able to buy Australian and American food or medicine here without further regulation?
The EU model of trade is different, demanding that other countries comply with their regulations in order to sell products within the single market. As such, any medicine not approved by the EMA cannot be sold there.
And given that research shows that the FDA tends to approve drugs faster than the EMA, it is possible that because of Brexit the UK could get faster access to a vaccine depending on where it is developed and licensed first.
A single line bill in Parliament could ensure instant approval for the vaccine. In fact, if the Government wanted to approve a treatment invented by a chap that Matt Hancock met down the pub then it could.
This is the meaning of 'taking back control': the government can do whatever it wants without seeking permission elsewhere, so long as it can pass a bill through Parliament. And yes, that includes approving a vaccine for Covid-19.