A drug company that recently increased the price of a bipolar drug, while also proposing to withdraw the cheaper alternative, has announced plans to stall the withdrawal after the competition watchdog launched an investigation into the company for anti-competitive practices.

Essential Pharma announced today (6 October) plans to withdraw Priadel from the UK - a widely-used brand of lithium taken by people with bipolar disorder - will be paused while the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) investigates whether it has ‘abused a dominant position in relation to lithium-based medicines.’

This comes just weeks after healthcare bodies, including the Royal Pharmaceutical Society (RPS) sent a letter to Matt Hancock urging him to stop withdrawal of the medicine. The letter expressed concerns over the discontinuation of Priadel, which could ‘compromise patient safety’.

‘The various [alternative] brands are not necessarily comparable [to Priadel] and, in switching, we risk either losing the effectiveness of the medicine or the development of serious toxicity,’ the letter explained.

The 12 bodies also highlighted issues with the manufacturer increasing the cost of another lithium-based drug Camcolit; which thousands of patients would need to switch to in the absence of Piradel. Increasing the cost of Camcolit would ‘cost the NHS approximately £15 million annually’ and ‘add pressure on already over-stretched primary and secondary care services.’

‘GPs and community pharmacists are already reporting phone calls from concerned patients,’ the letter added.

Ingvild Liborg, CEO of Essential Pharma, said the reason for discontinuing Priadel was that the company was selling the drug at a loss and suggested that pricing restrictions in the UK did not provide a viable solution.

‘We hope that the decision we have made to withdraw our discontinuation notice for Priadel will enable us to re-engage in a productive and constructive dialogue with the DoH on Priadel, which we sell at a loss in the UK and at lower price than in other European markets.

‘We look forward to working with both the CMA and the DoH towards a positive outcome that in particular results in the sustainable supply of Priadel to patients in the UK,’ he added.

Sandra Gidley, President of RPS welcomed the delay in withdrawal of Pridel: ‘The thousands of people who rely on Priadel will welcome the news that the Government and CMA have listened to our concerns about the need to maintain patient access to this vital medicine.

‘The Government and manufacturer must now work together to ensure this temporary pause in the withdrawal leads to a long-term solution. We must prevent companies from exploiting the system in future to support patient care and the NHS.’

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.

'We welcome Essential Pharma’s decision to continue supply for the time being, while it tries to reach an agreement with the Department of Health and Social Care on price.'

The CMA added that its investigation is ongoing and no decision has been made as to whether the law has been broken.