An Aggressive New Drug Pricing Trend: What It Means To India?

A new class and an aggressive drug-pricing trend is now evolving in the global pharmaceutical industry, exerting huge financial pressure on the patients and payers, including governments, especially, in the developed nations of the world.

Another aspect of this issue I deliberated in one of my earlier blog posts of August 18, 2014 titled, “Patented Drug Pricing: Relevance To R&D Investments.”

Let me start my deliberation today by citing an example. According to 2013 Drug Trend Report of the pharmacy benefits manager Express Scripts, the United States will spend 1,800 percent more on Hepatitis C Virus (HCV) medications by 2016 than it did last year. This is largely attributed to new Hepatitis C cure with Sovaldi of Gilead, priced at Rs 61,000 (US$ 1,000) per tablet with a three-month course costing around Rs. Million 5.10 (US$ 84,000), when it reportedly costs around U$130 to manufacture a pill.

In a Press Release, Express Scripts stated, “Never before has a drug been priced this high to treat a patient population this large, and the resulting costs will be unsustainable for our country…The burden will fall upon individual patients, state and federal governments, and payers who will have to balance access and affordability in a way they never have had to before.”

The magnitude of impact – an example:

According to another report from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid of the US, the cost to treat all Americans, who have hepatitis C, with Sovaldi would cost US$227 billion, whereas it currently costs America US$260 billion a year for all drugs bought in the country. According to Express Scripts, no major therapy class has experienced such a hefty increase in spending over the last 21 years.

This gives us a feel of the net impact of the evolving new aggressive drug pricing strategy on the lives of the patients and payers of one of the richest nations of the world.

Three critical parts of the evolving pricing strategy:

In an era, when new drug pricing has come under great scrutiny of the stakeholders globally, this strategy seems to have three critical components as follows:

1. Strategy for the developed countries: Set the launch price as high as possible and generate maximum profit faster from wealthy minority who can afford to pay for the drug.

It helps establishing the base price of the product globally, despite all hue and cries, maintaining a very healthy top and bottom line business performance, amidst ‘Wall Street cheering’.

Implementing this strategy meticulously and with precision, Gilead has reportedly registered US$ 5.8 billion in sales for Sovaldi in the first half of 2014. That too, in the midst of huge global concerns on alleged ‘profiteering’ with an exorbitantly priced HCV drug.

At that time, the company noted on its earnings call that it believes 9,000 people have been cured of HCV so far with Sovaldi, which means that the 6-month turnover of Sovaldi of US$ 5.8 billion was generated just from the treatment of 9000 patients. If we take the total number of HCV infected patients at 150 million globally, this new drug benefited less than one percent of the total number of HCV patients, despite clocking a mind-boggling turnover and profit.

2. Strategy for the developing countries: Create a favorable optic for the stakeholders by lowering the drug price significantly, in percentage term from its base price, earning still a decent profit. However, in reality the discounted price would continue to remain high for a very large number of patients.

Gilead is now in the process of implementing this strategy for 80 developing countries. For these markets, it has already announced a minimum threshold price of US$ 300 a bottle, enough for a month. With three months typically required for a full course and taking into account the currently approved combination with interferon, the total cost per patient would be about US$ 900 for a complete treatment against its usual price of US$ 84,000.

If we convert the discounted treatment cost, it comes down to around Rs. 55,000 from the base price of around Rs. Million 5.10. This discounted price, which is significantly less than the base price of the drug, creates an extremely favorable optic. No one discusses how many Hepatitis C patients would be able to afford even Rs. 55,000, say for example in a country like India? Thus, setting a high base price in the developed market for a new drug could make many in the developing world perceive that the treatment cost of Rs. 55,000 is very reasonable for majority of not so privileged patients.

Under the second strategy, Gilead has targeted mostly the world’s poorest nations, but also included some middle income ones such as Egypt, which has by far the highest prevalence of HCV in the world.

A ‘Financial Times’ report, also states, “At the US price, Gilead will recoup its Sovaldi development investment  . . . in a single year and then stand to make extraordinary profits off the backs of US consumers, who will subsidize the drug for other patients around the globe.”

If other global pharma companies also follow this differential strategy, one for the developed markets and the other for the developing markets, it could be a masterstroke for the Big Pharma. This would help address the criticism that its constituents are facing today for ‘obscene’ pricing of important new life saving drugs, as they target mostly the creamy layer of the society for business performance.

However, many in the United States are also articulating that they understand, the countries getting steep discounts from Gilead have high levels of poverty, but clearly points out that the disease affects lower-income patients in America, as well. To substantiate the point, they reiterate, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) about 150 million people worldwide have HCV, out of which around 2.7 million HCV diagnosed people live in the US. They highlight that currently even less than 25 percent of Americans with chronic HCV have had or are receiving treatment. In Europe, just 3.5 percent of patients of are being treated.

Thus, keeping in view of the increasing number of voices in the developed countries against abnormally high prices of the new drugs, the moot questions that come up are as follows:

  • Is Strategy 1 sustainable for the developed markets?
  • If not, would Strategy 2 for the developing market could ever be broader based?

3. Strategy for Voluntary License (VL) in those countries, where grant of product patent is   doubtful.

Thanks to the Indian patent regime, global companies would possibly consider following this route for all those products that may not be able to pass the ‘Acid Test’ of Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents Act 2005. Gilead has followed this route for Sovaldi and before that for tenofovir (Viread).

In this context, it is worth noting that the Indian patent office has not recognized Sovaldi’s patent for the domestic market, just yet. Thus, following this strategy Gilead announced, “In line with the company’s past approach to its HIV medicines, the company will also offer to license production of this new drug to a number of rival low-cost Indian generic drug companies. They will be offered manufacturing knowhow and allowed to source and competitively price the product at whatever level they choose.”

Accordingly, on September 15, 2014, international media reported that Cipla, Ranbaxy, Strides Arcolab, Mylan, Cadila Healthcare, Hetero labs and Sequent Scientific are likely to sign in-licensing agreements with Gilead to sell low cost versions of Sovaldi in India.

It was also reported that these Indian generic manufacturers would be free to decide their own prices for sofosbuvir, ‘without any mandated floor price’.

Indian companies would require paying 7 per cent of their revenues as royalty to Gilead, which, in turn would ensure full technology transfer to them to produce both the Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (API) and finished formulations. The generic version of Sovaldi is likely to be available in India in the second or third quarter of 2015, at the earliest.

However, the final decision of the Indian Patent Office on the patent grant for Sovaldi holds the key to future success of similar high-voltage, seemingly benign, VL based game plan of the global pharma majors.

The new trend:

In April 2014, Merck and Co. announced that its two HCV drug candidates had a 98 percent cure rate in a mid-stage trial. In addition, AbbVie is also expected to launch a high-end hepatitis C drug within the next year. The prices for these drugs are yet to be announced.

However, a new report of October 2014 states that USFDA has approved this month a new drug named Harmony, a ledipasvir/sofosbuvir combo formulation, again from Gilead for curative treatment of chronic HCV genotype 1 infection in adults. Harmony, which is called the son of Sovaldi, would cost a hopping US$ 94,500 for a 12-week regimen, as against US$ 84,000 for Sovaldi.

Hence, I reckon, similar aggressive pricing strategy for new drugs would gain momentum in the coming years and at the same time.

Is this pricing model sustainable?

Though Gilead pricing model for patented drugs works out better than what is prevailing today in India, the question that comes up yet again, whether the new model is sustainable for various reasons as mentioned above or would it be followed by majority of the global drug innovators?

In a situation like this, what then could be a sustainable solution in India?

The desirable pathway:

A transparent government mechanism for patented drugs pricing, as followed by many countries in the world, would be quite meaningful in India. The Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) of the Government of India could play a constructive role in this area, as already provided in the Drug Policy 2012 of the country.

This measure assumes greater urgency, as the astronomical prices of patented drugs, especially for life-threatening illnesses, such as cancer, have become a subject of great concern in India too, just as it has become a critical issue across the world.

DoP is in inactive mode:

It is not difficult to fathom that CL for all patented life-saving drugs would not be a sustainable measure for all time to come. Thus, the need for a robust mechanism of price negotiation for patented drugs was highlighted in the Drug Policy 2012.

The DoP first took up the issue for consideration in 2007 by forming a committee. After about six years from that date, the committee produced a contentious report, which had hardly any takers.

Today, despite the new government’s initiative to inject requisite energy within the bureaucracy, administrative lethargy and lack of sense of urgency still lingers with the DoP, impeding progress in this important subject any further.

Intense lobbying on this issue by vested interests from across the world has further pushed the envelope in the back burner. Recent report indicates, the envelope has since been retrieved for a fresh look with fresh eyes, as a new minister is now on the saddle of the department.

According to reports, a new inter-ministerial committee was also formed by the DoP under the chairmanship of one of its Joint Secretaries, to suggest a mechanism to fix prices of patented drugs in the country.
The other members of the committee are Joint Secretary, Department of Industrial Policy and Promotion (DIPP); Joint Secretary, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare; and Member Secretary, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA).

Unfortunately, nothing tangible has been made known to the stakeholders on this matter, just yet. I sincerely hope that the new government expedites the process now.

Three critical factors to consider:

While arriving at the patented products price in India, three critical factors should be made note of, as follows:

  • The discussion should start with the prices adjusted on the Purchasing Power Parity factor for India.
  • Any price must have a direct relationship with the per capita income of the population of the country.
  • Details of other public healthcare measures that the government would undertake, by increasing its healthcare spends as a percentage of GDP, should also be clearly articulated.

Conclusion:

The evolving and aggressive new product-pricing trend has three following clearly identifiable facets:

One, the base price of the drugs would be established at a very high level to help increase both the turnover and profit of the companies significantly and quickly. This measure would consequently make the drug bills of the developed world even more expensive, which could limit healthcare access wherever co-payment exists or the expenditures are Out of Pocket (OoP) in nature.

Two, against intense global criticism for aggressive drug pricing strategy, to create a favorable optic, the concerned companies would launch these products at a deep discount on the base price in the developing world. However, the net price would still remain high in absolute terms, considering per capita income in those countries.

Three, for many of these new products, Section 3(d) of the Indian Patents 2005 would place India at an advantage. Thus, in absence of evergreening type of product patents, to salvage the situation, many of these companies would prefer to offer Voluntary License (VL) to Indian generic manufacturers under specific terms and conditions. However, such VL may not have any potential value, if IPO refuses to grant patents to those products, which would fall under the above section. In that case, generic competition would further bring down the prices.

No doubt, the above pricing model for patented drugs works out better than what is prevailing today in India. However, the question that comes up, whether the new model is sustainable or would be followed by majority of the global drug innovators in the same way? Considering all these, it does not seem to be the most desirable situation. Moreover, the current patent regime is a deterrent mostly to evergreening of patents.

Thus, the Indian government should play a more specific and proactive role in this game by first putting in place and then effectively implementing a country specific mechanism to tame the spiraling patented drug prices in India, for the interest of patients.

The world has taken serious note of this fast evolving aggressive new drug-pricing trend, as different countries are in the process of addressing the issue in various country-specific ways. Unfortunately, the DoP still remains in a deep slumber, having failed once to half-heartedly put a clumsy mechanism in place to address the issue.

As India is now under a new political regime, let us sincerely hope, the new minister in charge succeeds to make it happen, sooner, reducing vulnerability of a vast majority of patients during many life threatening ailments and…of course, in tandem, ensuring justifiable profit margin for the innovator drug companies…the evolving aggressive new drug pricing trend notwithstanding.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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