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17 August 2021

The pharmaceutical companies behind the new prescription-free contraceptive pills

HRA Pharma and Mawellia have developed progestogen-only pills that can now be dispensed by pharmacists. 

By Oscar Williams

In July, the UK’s drugs regulator announced that pharmacies could sell contraceptive pills without a prescription for the first time in British history.

The announcement, which applies to progestogen-only pills, has been welcomed by sexual health experts and means that Britons will be able to buy two pills – Hana 75 and Lovima 75 – online or over the counter from pharmacies across the country.

What motivated the MHRA to change its guidance on contraceptive pills?

HRA Pharma and Maxwellia, which manufacture Hana and Lovima respectively, requested the reclassification. Before changing its guidance, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) carried out a consultation that revealed the public was overwhelmingly in favour of the move.

“This is good news for women and families,” said June Raine, the MHRA’s chief executive. “Pharmacists have the expertise to advise women on whether desogestrel is an appropriate and safe oral contraceptive pill for them to use and to give women the information they need, to make informed choices.”

[See also: A biotech firm is trialling the holy grail of cancer tests – but for now we must live with uncertainty]

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Is buying contraceptive pills over the counter safe?

The reclassification exclusively covers progestogen-only pills. Amina Hersi, a GP in London, said that pharmacists would carry out a short consultation before selling the pills and that they do not increase blood clot risk, unlike the combined contraceptive pill. “It’s a great idea,” Hersi said.“ It empowers people to make their own decisions.”

The US National Blood Clot Alliance states: “While progestin in the higher doses used to treat abnormal vaginal bleeding has been shown to increase the risk of thrombosis five- to six-fold, progestin in the doses used in contraceptives has not been shown to increase the risk of deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism.”

How much do prescription-free contraceptive pills cost?

One month’s supply of Hana pills will cost £9.95, according to HRA Pharma, while contraceptives are typically given out free of charge by GP surgeries and sexual health clinics.

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Who is HRA Pharma?

Founded in 1996, HRA Pharma is a French pharmaceuticals company headquartered in Paris. The company specialises in sexual health products for women and has previously marketed a morning-after pill in Britain, launching an ad campaign seeking to destigmatise emergency contraceptives.

Kate Evans, UK marketing director at HRA Pharma, welcomed the MHRA’s decision: “The change in how women can access oral contraceptives in the UK means more choice, which really is something to celebrate.”

Fewer than 300 people list HRA Pharma as their employer on LinkedIn, making it significantly smaller than other pharmaceutical giants, such as GSK, which employ tens of thousands of people around the world.

Who is Maxwellia?

Similar to HRA Pharma, Maxwellia specialises in self-care medication and transforming prescription drugs into those that can be bought over the counter. The company was founded in 2013 by the pharmacist Anna Maxwell and is based in Alderley Park, Cheshire, which was the historic home of the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca’s research and development unit until 2013.

The company, which raised more than £3m in funding in 2021, revealed that it had applied for three drugs to be “switched” by the MHRA from prescription-only to over-the-counter drugs.

“As a pharmacist, I have seen first-hand how important [pharmacies] are for helping people self-care,” Maxwell said. “It is vital more medicines are safely changed from being prescription-only so people can access them following a short consultation with a pharmacist.”

[See also: The contraceptive pill is having a PR crisis. Vaccine hysteria has exposed it]