Bipolar drug probe launched by UK competition watchdog

A probe into the supply of a bipolar treatment used by around 50,000 patients across the UK has been launched by the competition watchdog.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said it was investigating whether drugs firm Essential Pharma has abused its dominant position by proposing to withdraw the supply of Priadel, one of two bipolar treatments that it sells, to UK patients.

The move would mean thousands of patients would be forced to switch to more expensive lithium treatments, such as Essential Pharma’s alternative Camcolit drug.

The vast majority of those taking lithium-based drug to manage their symptoms use Priadel, with around 50,000 mental health patients in the UK reliant on the treatment, according to the NHS.

Essential Pharma’s plans to remove Priadel in the UK market has prompted serious concern from medical bodies and charities, who said that switching bipolar medication can be a difficult process for patients and may cause health complications, as well as significantly raising costs, according to the CMA.

“This is particularly concerning at a time when the national health service is under unprecedented pressure because of the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic,” the CMA said.

Since the CMA launched its investigation, Essential Pharma has agreed to continue supplying Priadel to allow talks with the Department of Health and Social Care over price.

But the CMA said the inquiry remains open, as the threat of the drug being withdrawn remains if agreement cannot be reached on price.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA said: “Thousands of people across the UK rely on lithium-based drugs to manage bipolar disorder, so it’s important that we protect their interests by scrutinising potential competition concerns to reach a fair conclusion as quickly as possible.”

If Essential Pharma is found to have breached competition rules, it could be fined up to 10% of its annual worldwide turnover.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS chief executive, said: “This move by the CMA will be welcomed by 50,000 vulnerable mental health patients across the country who are reliant on this drug, as well as their families and the NHS staff working hard to keep them safe and well.

“This particular company should now swiftly and constructively engage with all parties to find a solution that does not put patients at unnecessary clinical risk or land British taxpayers with an unfair and unjustifiable bill.”