Wednesday, 8 November, 2000, 13:12 GMT
Campaigners have succeeded in challenging a ruling that an expensive
drug for multiple sclerosis should not be made available on the NHS.
Preliminary guidance from the government's medicines watchdog, the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) indicated that the drug, beta interferon should not be made widely available on NHS prescription.
The guidance said beta interferon was highly expensive, and its clinical benefits were not clear cut enough to prove that it was cost-effective. The drug costs £10,000 a year per patient.
However, NICE has been told to re-consider its advice by an appeals panel set up to consider complaints about the original decision.
The news was welcomed by pressure groups, who argue that the drug is a godsend for many MS patients. However, they say the drug should be made available without further delay.
There is evidence that the drug can reduce the frequency of relapses and progression of the disease.
The appeals panel ruled that NICE had not explained its reasons for concluding that the drug was not cost-effective.
The panel also questioned whether the original appraisal committee had "fully considered" the long-term benefits of beta interferon for MS sufferers.
The panel rejected some of the appeals made by the MS society and the drug's manufacturers but said the guidance should be referred back to NICE.
The NICE appraisal committee will now meet on December 13 to reconsider its advice, with a further appeals process meaning a final decision will not be made until early next year.
New studies showing that the drug can delay or even stop the progress of the disease will also be considered by the committee.
Andrew Dillon, chief executive of NICE, said: "Appeals are part of the process for developing our guidance for the NHS and they are designed to give our technology appraisal process added objectivity and strength.
"As the appeal panel upheld certain points from the appeal, the institute is following its usual process and has asked the appraisal committee to reconsider the original evidence in the light of the panel's decision."
NICE has already said that MS patients already taking beta interferon should be allowed to continue to do so.
However, the appeals panel said it was unfair to treat these patients differently to those who had not yet been prescribed the drug.
Peter Cardy, chief executive of the MS Society said: "Many people with MS whose lives could have been transformed by the drugs may never receive them, in spite of the referral back.
"The delay will create even more misery for people already living with a devastating disease."
He added: "The upshot is that many more people who could already be receiving these proven and licensed drugs may now fail to meet the clinical criteria for them because their MS has progressed too far.
"People who could still be working and playing a real role in bringing up their families have already missed the chance of treatment which could have changed their lives."
Tory health spokesman Dr Liam Fox accused ministers of using NICE as a way to ration drugs without having to take direct blame themselves.
He said: "Whereas 13% of MS patients in Germany are prescribed beta interferon, the equivalent figure in the UK is only 1.5%.
"Alan Milburn continues to make a mockery of his promise that, under
Labour, no patient will be denied the medicines that they need."