Astronomical Prices of Patented Cancer Drugs: A Solution in Sight?

Astronomical prices of patented anti-cancer dugs have become a subject of great concern not just in India. It is becoming an issue across the world.

After issuing the first ever Compulsory License (CL) for Nexavar of Bayer in India, the grapevine is reportedly still abuzz on the progress of issuing CL for some commonly used high priced patent protected anti-cancer drugs, such as, dasatinib (Sprycel) of Bristol-Meyer Squibb. It is believed that a CL on dasatinib will reduce the product price to around Rs 8,000 for a month’s therapy as compared to Rs. L 1.65 for “Sprycel, benefitting the patients suffering from Chronic Myelogenous Leukemia (CML).

Whenever, a discussion on such pricing issues comes up in India, the counter arguments from the pharma MNCs are put as under:

  • Does India have adequate diagnostic facilities for the disease?
  • How many diagnosed patients would be able even the low cost product?

The intent of these questions appears to be diversionary in nature and has hardly any relationship with the real issue.

Yes, diagnosing cancer at an early stage is still a challenge in India for various socio-economic reasons, which need to be addressed expeditiously. But, what happens to majority of those diagnosed patients, who cannot afford to pay over Rs. 1.65 for a month’s therapy for a product like dasatinib? Won’t the reduced price of say Rs. 8,000 expand access of the drug to many more additional patients, though may not be to all.

US researchers also point out high cancer drugs cost:

It is interesting to note, that in a in a review article published recently in ‘The Lancet Oncology’, the US researchers Prof. Thomas Smith and Dr. Ronan Kelly identified drug pricing as one area of high costs of cancer care. They are confident that this high cost can be reduced, just as it is possible for end-of-life care and medical imaging – the other two areas of high costs in cancer treatment.

Besides many other areas, the authors suggested that reducing the prices of new cancer drugs would immensely help containing cancer costs. Prof. Smith reportedly said, “There are drugs that cost tens of thousands of dollars with an unbalanced relationship between cost and benefit. We need to determine appropriate prices for drugs and inform patients about their costs of care.”

Pricing pressure in Europe too:

Another recent report highlights that Germany is contemplating legislation shortly that would force drug manufacturers to report the reduced prices they negotiate with insurers, potentially pressuring prices lower elsewhere in Europe.

The report highlights that drug manufacturers have had to negotiate rebates on new innovative medicines with German insurers for the past three years. Now, instead of referring to rebates negotiated between drug manufacturers and insurers, the law will refer to reimbursement. The shift may seem small, but it means the talks are really about price, not discounts, which is often good for a limited time or volume and is renegotiable.

It is worth noting from the report that countries including Spain, France and Italy have reduced the number of drugs for which they will reimburse patients, mandated the increased use of generic medicines and lowered the amount they will pay for some products since the economic crisis.

A solution in sight?

Coming back to the Indian scenario, unlike many other developed and developing countries of the world, there is no system yet in place in India to negotiate prices of patented drugs, including those used for cancer.

CL for all patented anti-cancer drugs may not be a sustainable measure for all time to come, either. One robust alternative is price negotiation for patented drugs in general, including anti-cancer drugs, as provided in the Drug Policy 2012. The issue has been under consideration of the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) since 2007. The bizarre report produced by a committee formed for the purpose earlier had no takers.

Unfortunately administrative lethargy and lack of requisite sense of urgency have not allowed the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) to progress much on this important subject, beyond customary lip service, as on date. Intense lobbying on the subject by vested interests from across the world has further pushed the envelope in a dark corner.

Recent report indicates, the envelope has since been retrieved for a fresh look with fresh eyes, most probably, as a new leader now on the saddle of the department.

An inter-ministerial committee has now reportedly been formed by the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) under the chairmanship of one of its Joint Secretaries, to suggest a mechanism to fix prices of patented drugs in India.
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).

It appears, inputs will be taken from various industry associations, yet again.

Conclusion:

Pharmaco-economics input, I reckon, would be of immense value for this exercise. Since the ‘Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI)’ has one such unit doing lots of good analysis, this inter-ministerial group may also consider inclusion of this unit in the committee, as advisor.

The pricing of newer patented medicines, especially those used for the treatment of cancer, are of critical importance for the country and the committee should ground the issue satisfactorily within a specified period without further delay.

Hopefully, a well thought out report of the inter-ministerial committee would help resolving this issue soon once and for all, including a large number of cancer patients in India.

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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