High Innovation-Cost Makes Cancer Drugs Dear: A Fragile Argument?

Cancer is a major cause of high morbidity and mortality in India, just many other countries, according to a report of the World Health Organization (W.H.O). While deaths from cancer worldwide are projected to continue to rise to over 1.31 million in 2030, the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) estimates that India is likely to have over 1.73 million new cases of cancer and over 8,80,000 deaths due to the disease by 2020 with cancers of breast, lung and cervix topping the list.

 Cancer treatment is beyond the reach of many:

Despite cancer being one of the top five leading causes of death in the country, with a major impact on society, its treatment is still beyond the reach of many. There are, of course, a number of critical issues that need to be addressed in containing the havoc that this dreaded disease causes in many families –  spanning across its entire chain, from preventive measures to early diagnosis and right up to its effective treatment. However, in this article, I shall focus only on the concern related to affordable treatment with appropriate cancer with medicines.

To illustrate this point, I shall quote first from the address of the Chief Minister of Maharashtra during inauguration of Aditya Birla Memorial Hospital Cancer Care Center on November 26, 2016. He said: “Cancer is the dreadful disease of all the time and for Maharashtra it is a big challenge as we are infamously at number two position in cancer cases in the country as after Uttar Pradesh, most cases are found here.” Incidentally, UP is one of the poorest state of India.

Underscoring that the biggest challenge before the technology is to bring down the cost of the cancer treatment and make it affordable and accessible for all, the Chief Minister (CM) further observed, “although, technological innovation has increased in last one decade, the accessibility and affordability still remain a challenge and I think, we need to work on this aspect.”

A new cancer drug launch vindicates the CM’s point:

The Maharashtra CM’s above statement is vindicated by a national media report of September 13, 2017. It said, Merck & Co of the United States have launched its blockbuster cancer drug ‘Keytruda’ (pembrolizumab) in India, around a year after its marketing approval in the country. Keytruda is expected to be 30 percent cheaper, compared to its global prices, costing Rs 3,75,000 – 4,50,000 to patients for each 21-day dose in India.

The point to take note of, despite being 30 percent cheaper, how many Indian patients will be able to afford this drug for every 3 weeks therapy? Doesn’t it, therefore, endorse the CM’s above submission? Well, some may argue that this exorbitant drug price is directly linked to high costs for its innovation and clinical development. Let me examine this myth now under the backdrop of credible research studies.

Cancer drugs are least affordable in India – An international study:

On June 6, 2016, by a Press Release, American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) revealed the results of one of the largest analyses of differences in cancer drug prices between countries worldwide. The researchers calculated monthly drug doses for 15 generic and eight patented cancer drugs used to treat a wide range of cancer types and stages. Retail drug prices in Australia, China, India, South Africa, United Kingdom, Israel, and the United States were obtained predominantly from government websites. The study shows that cancer drug prices are the highest in the United States, and the lowest in India and South Africa.

However, adjusting the prices against ‘GDPcapPPP’ – a measure of national wealth that takes into consideration the cost of living, cancer drugs appeared to be least affordable in India and China. The researchers obtained the ‘GDPcapPPP’ data for each country from the International Monetary Fund and used it to estimate the affordability of drugs.

Why are cancer drug prices so high and not affordable to many?

The most common argument of the research based pharma companies is that the cost of research and development to bring an innovative new drug goes in billions of dollars.

The same question was raised in a series of interviews at the J.P. Morgan Healthcare Conference, published by the CNBC with a title “CEOs: What’s missing in the drug pricing debate” on January 11, 2016, where three Global CEOs expressed that the public is getting overly simple arguments in the debate about drug pricing. All three of them reportedly cited three different reasons altogether, as follows:

  • Eli Lilly CEO said, “Some of the noise you hear about drug pricing neglects the fact that we often must pay deep discounts in a market-based environment where we’re competing in many cases against other alternative therapies, including those low-cost generics.”
  • Pfizer CEO took a different approach by saying, “if you look at the market, about a decade ago, 54 percent of the pharmaceutical market was genericized; today 90 percent is genericized.”
  • However, as reported by CNBC, Novartis CEO Joseph Jimenez, focusing on innovation and in context on cancer drugs, argued “innovation has to continue to be rewarded or we’re just not going to be able to see the kind of breakthroughs that we have seen in cancer research, specifically regarding the uses and benefits of the cancer-fighting drug Gleevec. We continued to show that the drug was valuable in other indications in cancer and so we needed to be reared for that innovation and we’re pricing according to that.”

Is drug innovation as expensive and time intensive as claimed to be?

An article titled, “The high cost of drugs is the price we pay for innovation”, published by the World Economic Forum (WEF) on March 28, 2017 reported, “15 spenders in the pharmaceutical industry are investing about US$3 billion in R&D, on average, for each successful new medicine.”

The November 18, 2014 report on the ‘Cost of Developing a New Drug,’ prepared by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development also announced: “The estimated average pre-tax industry cost per new prescription drug approval (inclusive of failures and capital costs) is: US$ 2,558 million.”

Not everybody agrees:

Interestingly, Professor of Medicine of Harvard University – Jerry Avorn questioned the very basis of this study in the article published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) on May 14, 2015. It’s not just NEJM even the erstwhile Global CEO of GSK – Sir Andrew Witty had questioned such high numbers attributed to R&D cost, around 5 years ago, in 2013. At that time Reuters reported his comments on the subject, as follows:

“The pharmaceutical industry should be able to charge less for new drugs in future by passing on efficiencies in research and development to its customers. It’s not unrealistic to expect that new innovation ought to be priced at or below, in some cases, the prices that have pre-existed them. We haven’t seen that in recent eras of the (pharmaceutical) industry, but it is completely normal in other industries.” Quoting the study of Deloitte and Thomson Reuters on R&D productivity among the world’s 12 top drugmakers that said the average cost of developing a new medicine, including failures, was then US$ 1.1 billion, Witty remarked, “US$ 1 billion price-tag was one of the great myths of the industry.”

A decade after Sir Andrew’s comment, his view was virtually corroborated by yet another research study, published this month. The study reemphasized: “The Tufts analysis lacks transparency and is difficult to judge on its merits. It cannot be properly analyzed without knowing the specific drug products investigated, yet this has been deemed proprietary information and is governed by confidentiality agreements.” I shall discuss this report briefly, in just a bit.

The latest study busts the myth:

The latest study on the subject, titled “Research and Development Spending to Bring a Single Cancer Drug to Market and Revenues After Approval”, has been published in the ‘JAMA Internal Medicine’ on September 11, 2017. It busts the myth that ‘high innovation-cost makes cancer drugs dear,’ providing a transparent estimate of R&D spending on cancer drugs. Interestingly, the analysis included the cost of failures, as well, while working out the total R&D costs of a company.

The report started by saying: “A common justification for high cancer drug prices is the sizable research and development (R&D) outlay necessary to bring a drug to the US market. A recent estimate of R&D spending is US$ 2.7 billion (2017 US dollars). However, this analysis lacks transparency and independent replication.”

The study concludes: “Prior estimates for the cost to develop one new drug span from US$ 320.0 million to US$ 2.7 billion. We analyzed R&D spending for pharmaceutical companies that successfully pursued their first drug approval and estimate that it costs US$ 648.0 million to bring a drug to market. In a short period, development cost is more than recouped, and some companies boast more than a 10-fold higher revenue than R&D spending—a sum not seen in other sectors of the economy. Future work regarding the cost of cancer drugs may be facilitated by more, not less, transparency in the biopharmaceutical industry.” The researchers also established that ‘the median time to develop a drug was 7.3 years (range, 5.8-15.2 years).’

“Policymakers can safely take steps to rein in drug prices without fear of jeopardizing innovation”:

NPR – a multimedia news organization and radio program producer reported: In an invited commentary that accompanies the JAMA Internal Medicine analysis, Merrill Goozner, editor emeritus of the magazine Modern Healthcare, noted that “the industry consistently generates the highest profit margins among all U.S. industries.” Goozner argues that the enormous value of patent protection for drugs far outweighs the inherent riskiness of pharmaceutical research and development, and agrees with the study authors when he writes: “Policymakers can safely take steps to rein in drug prices without fear of jeopardizing innovation,” NPR wrote.

Conclusion:

So, the moot question that surfaces: Is Pharma innovation as expensive and time consuming as claimed to be? If not, it further strengthens the credibility barrier to Big Pharma’s relentless pro-innovation messaging. Is the core intent, then, stretching the product monopoly status as long as possible – with jaw dropping pricing, unrelated to cost of innovation?

Further, incidents such as, shielding patent of a best-selling drug from low priced generic competition, by transferring its patents on to a native American tribe, probably, unveil the core intent of unabated pro-innovation messaging of major global pharma companies. In this particular case, being one among those companies which are seeking to market cheaper generic versions of this blockbuster eye drug, Mylan reportedly has decided to vigorously oppose such delaying tactic of Allergan before the Patent Trial and Appeal Board.

As a cumulative impact of similar developments, lawmakers in the United States are reportedly framing new laws to address the issue of high drug prices. For example, “California’s Senate Bill 17 would require health insurers to disclose the costs of certain drugs and force pharmaceutical manufacturers to detail price hikes to an agency for posting on a government website. The proposal would also make drugmakers liable to pay a civil penalty if they don’t follow its provisions.”

The myth of ‘high innovation-cost makes cancer drugs dear’ will go bust with such revelations, regardless of the blitzkrieg of self-serving pro-innovation fragile messaging.  Alongside, shouldn’t the Indian Policy makers take appropriate measures to rein in cancer drug prices, being free from any apprehension of jeopardizing innovation?

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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