Dwindling Drug Innovation: Declining Image: Unchanged Business And Advocacy Models

A report of ‘The United States International Trade Commission (USITC)’ released on December 22, 2014 suggested, if tariffs and investment restrictions were fully eliminated, and standards of IP protection were made comparable to the U.S and Western European levels, American exports to India would rise by two-thirds.

A year later, on February 01, 2015 an interesting news article highlighted that the flashpoint of this issue “has clearly been pharmaceutical companies and their lobby group Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), which have made some of the strongest representations to the US government against India’s IPR regime.” The same report also indicated that many other companies including the aircraft maker Boeing and the generic drug giant Abbott felt that India offered adequate IP protection and that they had not experienced major IP problems in the country.

The above stance of USITC continued echoing right from the beginning of this year. In January 2017, the CEO of US Biotechnology Innovation Organization (BIO) reportedly told our Prime Minister Narendra Modi, ‘if he follows western practices on intellectual property protection, his country would see a “tidal wave” of biotech industry investment.’

On February 08, 2017, when the fifth edition of ‘U.S. Chamber International IP Index’ report was released by the ‘Global Intellectual Property Center (GIPC)’, India featured in the 43rd rank out of 45 countries. With this India remained virtually at the bottom of the IP index for the fourth year on the trot. The GIPC report underscored India’s “anaemic IPR policy”, Section 3.d of the Indian Patents Act, besides several others, as major market access barriers.

On February 14, 2017, another news article reported that America’s pharma sector has asked the US Trade Representative (USTR) to continue to keep India on its Priority Watch List (PWL), which includes countries that are alleged violators of US patent laws, claiming that the environment on the ground remains ‘challenging’ in India. Among the areas of concern for the US pharma companies operating in India, unpredictable IP environment, high tariffs and taxes on medicines, regulatory data protection failure, discriminatory and non-transparent market access policies and unpredictable environment for clinical research were listed among others.

With this backdrop, the key question that haunts many industry watchers, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) has no complaint with the Indian Patents Act 2005, and finds it TRIPS compliant, why are these reports coming from the United States consistently emphasizing that the current IP regime of the country is a key barrier to market access, especially for research-based pharma companies?

Is the core issue of the global pharma industry in India is predominantly not encouraging innovation well enough, or the dearth of inadequate Intellectual Property (IP) protection – or it is something beyond that, and is more fundamental in nature. In this article, I shall dwell in this area, first in the global perspective, and then zeroing-in to India.

A global perspective:

“The past 60 years have seen huge advances in many of the scientific, technological and managerial factors that should tend to raise the efficiency of commercial drug research and development (R&D). Yet the number of new drugs approved per billion US dollars spent on R&D has halved roughly every 9 years since 1950, falling around 80-fold in inflation-adjusted terms.  There have been many proposed solutions to the problem of declining R&D efficiency. However, their apparent lack of impact so far and the contrast between improving inputs and declining output in terms of the number of new drugs make it sensible to ask whether the underlying problems have been correctly diagnosed,” articulated an important article published on March 01, 2012 in the Nature Reviews Drug Discovery.

This trend continues, virtually unchanged. R&D efficiency continues to remain a cause of great concern to the research-based global pharmaceutical companies. Accordingly, a 2016 report of the Deloitte Center for Health Solutions titled, ‘Measuring the return of pharmaceutical innovation’, among other findings, has captured the following:

  • Annual projected pharma R&D return declines to 3.7 percent from 10.1 percent in 2010
  • Peak sales per asset fall 11.4 percent year-on-year since 2010

What then is its basic solution?

When the right solution eludes:             

In this scenario, when the right solution is still eluding, to record growth in corporate profit and earning to meet shareholders’ expectations, keeping the existing business model intact, the global research-based pharma companies have the following two limited options, which they are actively pursuing:

  • Take high price increases for the existing products
  • Launch the limited new products at a very high price

A report published in The First Word Pharma on October 06, 2015 quoting The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) vindicated exercising the first option. It reported that many drug makers have succeeded in increasing revenue on products despite a flat or declining demand by consistently increasing prices. An analysis revealed that revenue for the top 30 products in the United States zoomed by 61 percent over the past five years, three times the increase in the number of prescriptions sold over that period. While another report by Credit Suisse illustrated that 80 percent of the growth in net profit for the top 20 drug makers was attributable to price hikes.

To substantiate application of the second option, I quote from the CBS News, which on April 05, 2016 reported that an investigation into the cost of prescription drugs revealed huge price hikes over the past five years. Several brand name medications more than doubled in price. Again, on  August 24, 2016, it gave a sense of this trend with the following examples, covering the launch price of innovative drug, and price increases of generic drugs:

  • Gilead fixed their new hepatitis C drug Sovaldi’s cost at US$ 900 – 1,000 per pill
  • Mylan Pharmaceuticals’ increased the cost of its anti-allergic drug EpiPen from about US$ 57 in 2007 to more than US$ 500 in 2016
  • Turing Pharmaceuticals increased the price of the anti-malaria drug Daraprim by 5,000 percent last year, charging US$ 750 per pill for a drug that used to cost US$ 13.50 per pill.

PhRMA – the often quoted trade association in America, representing the country’s leading pharma and bio-pharmaceutical research-based companies, reportedly said in a statement: “Focusing solely on the list prices of medicines is misleading because it ignores the significant discounts and rebates negotiated by insurers and pharmacy benefit managers.”

Even if, this argument is accepted as such, the tough impact of regular hefty drug price increases on the consumers is real, unquestionably.

The current business model leaves behind many patients:

The ‘Access to Medicine Index 2016’ report also finds that companies generally do not systematically target populations with the highest needs in their registration, pricing and licensing actions. Although, we continue to make progress toward major public health goals, such as, polio is close to being eradicated, as is guinea worm; more than 45 percent of people living with HIV/AIDS have access to ARVs; important vaccines for malaria and dengue fever are being implemented, still business models for providing healthcare are leaving many people behind. Globally, two billion people cannot access the medicines they need, most of whom live hand to mouth.

Particularly, the big global pharma companies, as the innovators and producers of life-saving medicines, need to act much earlier in the patients’ value chain. Without or inadequate action by these companies, alongside governments, NGOs and others, it will be impossible to bring modern medicine to everyone.

Public outrage over high drug prices:

Many studies indicate that the research-based global pharma and biotech companies, still strive hard to stick to their existing overall business models with a sharp focus on improving both the top and bottom lines of the business, though the R&D projects are becoming lesser and lesser productive. This prompts them resorting to hefty price increases, and introducing new products with high price. Fueled by this self-serving mindset, a simmering public outrage, globally, over high drug prices is fast catching up, further undermining the trust in the industry, as another report says.

No wonder why in the Gallup Poll of August 15, 2016, pharmaceutical industry featured just one above the bottom among the ‘Worst-Rated U.S. Business Sectors’. Moreover, even the Harris Poll released on January 17, 2017 found that 91 percent of U.S. consumers believe pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies put profits over patients.

The industry continues chasing rainbows:

In response to this mounting stakeholders’ criticism, arguably the richest pharma association in the world in its member subscriptions – PhRMA, reportedly launched a new ad campaign costing tens of millions of dollars on January 25, 2017. It aims to highlight innovation and scientific breakthroughs to change the public’s negative perception of the industry. This campaign will span across television, print, digital, and radio, the report elaborates.

Following is an example, as reported, listing three important and interesting comments on this campaign for pharma image revamp from some of those who matter:

  • Lawmaker Peter Welch, who chairs the House Democratic Caucus’ task force on drug pricing, said, “The issue here is not whether drugs have some benefits … The issue is whether pharma is going to be able to kill us with their pricing power or whether we will get transparency and competition.” He added, “The campaign is all about defending their pricing power and pushing their product.”
  • Similarly, another lawmaker Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) said, “This is [PhRMA] trying to change the subject and to try and divert people’s attention away from drug pricing. Continuing to ignore drug pricing is probably not going to work.”
  • Ameet Sarpatwari, a drug pricing policy researcher at Harvard University said, “It’s really a matter of being tone deaf in terms of thinking somehow that this is going to change public perception”

Isn’t a great example of chasing rainbows by the industry association, in the number one pharma and biotech market of the world, instead of amending to the root cause of this burning issue?

The situation in India:

In this backdrop, amid a tough global situation, let me assess the related Indian scenario.

The research-based global pharma companies, apparently want to introduce the whole range of their patented products at a high price and in a monopolistic situation in India too, for much higher growth in revenue and profits. Thus, they are consistently pushing hard, with all guns blazing, for major changes in the Indian Patents Act 2005, which would involve jettisoning many patients’ health interest related safeguard conditions enshrined in the Act, such as Section 3.d that restricts ever-greening of patents, and introducing several other tougher IP measures, such as data exclusivity under the garb of imaginary patient safety issues with generic drugs.

They don’t seem to like price control of essential drugs in India, either. While intensely lobbying for it, the lobbyists vehemently argue in favor of the absurd, which is the affordability of medicines does not help to increase drug access to all those who need these most, even when on the ground, the out of pocket expenses for drugs in the country is as high as around 65 percent and universal health care does exist in the country, much to the dismay of many.

It has now been generally established by many global experts, including our own National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) that market competition does not necessarily bring down drug prices, including for generics, quite unlike many other industries, but various pressure groups, including the media, can catalyze it, and quite effectively. What has happened recently with the cardiac stents price in the country, is just an example.

Is the devil in the traditional pharma business model?

An article titled, “How Pharma Can Fix Its Reputation and Its Business at the Same Time”, published on February 03, 2017 in The Harvard Business Review, emphatically states: “It’s a fact that the current business model of pharma companies is not working efficiently.” It suggests, besides enhancing the current unenviable public image of the industry, expanding access to medicines will help pharma companies enhance shareholder value. The success of a new business model depends on both the willingness and the ability of pharmaceutical companies to fully integrate access to medicine into their business strategies, the article emphasizes.

A July 2015 paper of McKinsey & Company titled, “Pharma’s next challenge”, also reiterates that in the developed economies, market access is chiefly concerned with pricing, and with satisfying local conditions. Whereas, in the emerging markets, to overcome the barriers, pharma players need to shift the focus of their commercial models from marketing and sales to access, and from brand-by-brand access planning to integrated cross-brand planning.

In pursuit of a new model:

Based on the above premises, the search for a new pharma business model, especially for the research-based pharma companies, in my view, may broadly focus on the following areas:

  • Learn from innovation models of the IT industry: Win-Win collaborative innovation models, including ‘Open Source Drug Discovery’, if scaled up, could reduce the cost of innovation significantly and making the new innovative drugs generally affordable. Thus, larger volume sales may adequately offset a voluntary cut in the product margin, creating a multiplier effect.
  • Be a part of the solution and not the problem: Because of fiercely pushing the blatant self-serving agenda, inconveniencing many patients, the core mindset of the pharma industry is considered by many as an integral part of the main problem. While pharma industry, quite rightly, seek more market access, they need to act as a facilitator too, to improve general access to medicines, in various imaginative ways, which is, of course, possible. This will make the pharma industry to be a part of the solution to the national problem, over a period of time.
  • Walk the talk: While pharma industry speaks all right things, in terms of ethical conduct of business, at a time when both national and international media frequently expose their gross wrongdoings. This continues, unabated. Sales and marketing functions are indeed very important, but not at the cost of good corporate governance. I am aware, all compliance rules exist immaculately on paper for many companies, but the senior management officials should demonstrate that they walk the talk, giving exemplary punishment to the wrongdoers, including their peers.
  • Change the current advocacy model: The current advocacy model of the research-based pharma companies is too self-serving. For example, in India it mostly demands, which is bordering obsession, to change the IP laws of a sovereign country, when the World Trade Organization (WTO) has no problem with these, whatsoever. There is a need for them to demonstrate, sans any shade of arrogance, visible respect to any country’s general sentiment on its Patents Act, as it’s their own decision to operate in those countries. An imaginative win-win change in this area, would significantly help to create a strong bond and mutual respect with other important stakeholders.

Are senior citizens in pharma business a barrier to change?

recent white paper of ‘Eye for Pharma’, says in its conclusion “many of those now running pharma organizations have come through the ‘golden age’ of pharma and so may be reluctant to change”. Does this issue need to be addressed first by the Independent Directors of the respective Boards of the pharma companies?

In conclusion:

Many questions do spring up while addressing this issue. One common belief is that, pharma industry, in general, is reluctant to change its traditional business model, beyond just tweaking, despite declining overall productivity and in its public image.

In advocacy initiatives, while drawing stakeholders’ attention to the core grievance agenda, though they try hard to project their business focus on patients, especially using the buzzwords, such as, ‘patient centric approach’ or ‘patient engagement’, among many others, has anything visibly changed, just yet?

As the business environment is getting tougher and consumer expectations are fast changing, drug innovation is also steadily dwindling, so is the declining industry image. However, pharma business and advocacy models continue to remain mostly unchanged. It remains intriguing, why are the ‘wise guys’ of pharma business still so deeply obsessed with chasing rainbows, with so much of zeal, hectic activity and money, while majority of patients keeps bearing the brunt?

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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