Is The Core Purpose of Pharma Business Much Beyond Profit Making?

Dr. Margaret Chan, the Director General of the World Health Organization (WHO), at a briefing to discuss the Ebola outbreak in West Africa at the UN Foundation in Washington on September 3, 2014 said:

“Big Pharma’s greed for profits, not lack of funding, delaying Ebola treatment development.”

Highlighting that the disease has already taken lives of 4,951 people in West Africa, Dr. Chan castigated the pharmaceutical industry for failing to develop an effective treatment for the deadly virus Ebola since 1976. “Though the Ebola crisis has become the most severe acute public health emergency seen in modern times, a profit-driven industry does not invest in products for markets that cannot pay”, Dr. Chan added.

That said, the Big Pharma has now initiated some efforts in this area, as the disease currently poses a significant threat to non-African countries, including America.

The sentiment reverberates:

Echoing similar sentiment, an article published in the BBC News on November 7, 2014 reiterated:

“Big pharma companies are in the business to make money, so will generally develop those drugs that offer the greatest potential for profit. This means a number of important drugs are neglected – the current Ebola crisis being a case in point.”

The profit oriented approach isn’t restricted just to the diseases of Africa:

The above article also points out that, besides diseases of the developing world, the Big Pharma has been slow to develop newer and multi-drug resistant antibiotics, as well.

This is mainly because, it is lot more difficult for the pharma companies to make huge quantum of profit from discovery of newer antibiotics for acute infections having limited use for around 7 to 10 days, as compared to the medicines for chronic illnesses that people will have to necessarily take every day, for life.

It appears today that the ongoing public opinion and pressure are possibly not adequate enough to trigger even a slightest change in the fetish for profit-making incentives of the Big Pharma companies.

Despite high profitability, the fetish for even more profit continues:

The pharma industry that basically exists to help saving lives of patients of all types, status and color in various ways, now seems to focus mostly on generation of more and more profit than ever before.

- The following table would vindicate the point of profitability of the industry:

Highest and Lowest Profit Margins of 5 key Industrial Sectors, 2013                        (Profit Margin in %)

No.

Sectors

Highest

Lowest

1.

Pharmaceuticals

42

10

2.

Banks

29

5

3.

Carmakers

10

3

4.

Oil & Gas

24

2

5.

Media

18

6

NB: Highest and lowest margins achieved by individual company                             (Source: Forbes, BBC News)

To generate mind boggling profits, many of the Big Pharma constituents have reportedly resorted to various types of gross misconduct and malpractices too, the Chinese saga being the tip of the iceberg.

- The following are some recent examples to help fathom the enormity of the problem:

  • In September 2014, GlaxoSmithKline was reportedly fined US $490m by China for bribery.
  • In March 2014, the antitrust regulator of Italy reportedly fined two Swiss drug majors, Novartis and Roche 182.5 million euros (U$ 251 million) for allegedly blocking distribution of Roche’s Avastin cancer drug in favor of a more expensive drug Lucentis that the two companies market jointly for an eye disorder.
  • Just before this, in the same month of March 2014, it was reported that a German court had fined 28 million euro (US$ 39 million) to the French pharma major Sanofi and convicted two of its former employees on bribery charges.
  • In November 2013, Teva Pharmaceutical reportedly said that an internal investigation turned up suspect practices in countries ranging from Latin America to Russia.
  • In May 2013, Sanofi was reportedly fined US$ 52.8 Million by the French competition regulator for trying to limit sales of generic versions of the company’s Plavix.
  • In August 2012, Pfizer Inc. was reportedly fined US$ 60.2 million by the US Securities and Exchange Commission to settle a federal investigation on alleged bribing of overseas doctors and other health officials to prescribe medicines.
  • In April 2012, a judge in Arkansas, US, reportedly fined Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary more than US$1.2 billion after a jury found that the companies had minimized or concealed the dangers associated with an antipsychotic drug.

Many more of such instances are regularly being reported by the international media, unabated.

More profit through high drug pricing – The key argument in favor:

The Big Pharma argues that high drug pricing is absolutely necessary to generate a kind of profit, that is essential to fund heavy investments for drug innovation to meet the unmet needs of patients. Moreover, only 3 out of 10 drugs launched are profitable, on an average.

This argument really goes over the top. It does not hold much water either, as the Big Pharma reportedly spends more on the process of drug marketing than on innovation (R&D) of new drugs.

The following table would paint a different picture altogether, marketing expenditure being far more than the R&D costs: 

R&D and Marketing Spend of World’s largest Pharmaceutical Companies

Company Total Revenue (US$ Bn.) R&D Spend  (US$ Bn.) Marketing Spend (US$ Bn.) Profit (US$ Bn.) Profit Margin (%)
J & J (US) 71.3 8.2 17.5 13.8 19
Novartis (Swiss) 58.8 9.9 14.6 9.2 16
Pfizer (US) 51.6 6.6 11.4 22.0 43
Roche (Swiss) 50.3 9.3 9.0 12.0 24
Sanofi (France) 44.4 6.3 9.1 8.5 11
Merck (US) 44.0 7.5 9.5 4.4 10
GSK (UK) 41.4 5.3 9.9 8.5 21
AstraZeneca(UK) 25.7 4.3 7.3 2.6 10
Eli Lilly (US) 23.1 5.5 5.7 4.7 20
AbbVie (US) 18.8 2.9 4.3 4.1 22

(Source: GlobalData, BBC News)

Thus, it is difficult to fathom why are numbers of drugs, such as, Sovaldi and others costing as much as US $ 84,000 and above for a treatment course, when the cost of manufacturing is no more than an insignificant fraction of that treatment cost?

Considering all these and looking at the published profit and loss accounts of various pharma companies, it appears that, the line between ‘making reasonable profit’ and ‘profiteering’ is getting increasingly blurred in the pharma world.

Why is the marketing cost so high?

Since about the last decade and half, despite reasonably high expenditure on R&D there does not seem to have been many reports on breakthrough innovations. According to an expert of the World Health Organization (WHO), “of the 20 or 30 new drugs brought to the market each year, typically 3 are genuinely new, with the rest offering only marginal benefits.”

In a situation like this, when the challenge mostly is of generating targeted revenues with the new products of ‘me-too values’ rather than with those having intrinsic ‘unmet values’, marketing costs to generate doctors’ prescription would obviously escalate disproportionately. Even the process followed to generate these prescriptions, often cross the red line of regulatory, ethics and compliance standards, as have been cited above.

The following questions come up consequently:

- Are these exorbitant avoidable marketing expenditures adding any tangible or intangible values to the ultimate consumers – the patients?

- If not, why burden the patients with these unnecessary costs?

India is no different against similar parameters:

Back home in India, the deep anguish of the stakeholders over similar issues is now being increasingly reverberated with every passing day, as it were. It has also drawn the attention of the patients’ groups, NGOs, media, Government and even the Parliament.

The quality of the pharmaceutical sales and marketing process in India has touched a new low and continues to go south, causing suffering to a large number of patients. Well documented unethical drug promotion is increasingly becoming an emerging threat to the society.

Even today, the Ministry of Health and the Department of Pharmaceuticals of the Government of India provide few checks and balances on unethical drug promotion in India and prefer to keep the eyes meant for vigilance, closely shut.

Despite deplorable inaction of the government on the subject and frequent reporting by Indian media, the national debate on this issue is yet to attain a critical mass. A related Public Interest Litigation (PIL) is now pending before the Supreme Court for hearing, hopefully in the near future. Its judicial verdict is expected to usher in a breath of fresh air around a rather stifling environment for healthcare in India.

I deliberated on a similar issue in one of my earlier blog posts of September 1, 2014, titled, “Pharma And Healthcare: Mounting Trust deficit In Post Halcyon Days

Conclusion:

While it is well-acknowledged that pharma industry has contributed immensely for the development of a large number of life saving new drugs to save precious lives all over the globe, none can also deny that for such efforts the companies concerned have not been hugely profited either…and, as we have been witnessing, not necessarily through legitimate means, always.

That said, in the backdrop of all the above examples, the core issue that emerges today as raised by many, including the World Health Organization (WHO), is the growing inherent conflict between predominantly the profit driven business goals of the pharma players and the public health interest of a nation.

Considering a number of recent serious public outbursts of the global thought leaders and also from the international media on the ‘profit dominating goals’ of the pharma industry, in general, the following questions need to be addressed with all seriousness:

- Is there a need to define afresh the core purpose of pharmaceutical business for all?

- Does the core purpose go much beyond profit making?

- If so, how would the industry plan to engage the stakeholders for its credible public demonstration?

Meanwhile, taking a serious note of it and learning from the past examples, India should initiate experts’ debate on the subject soon, to effectively resolve the conflict of two different mindsets, not resting on the same page in many ways.

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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