On The Flip Side of Pharma Industry: A Saga of Perennial Contradictions

Awesome contribution in the battle against multiple diseases, is obviously the primary facet of the pharma industry. However, on its flip side, one would witness a saga of numerous contradictions. Some of these exist perennially in well-protected opaque cocoons, regardless of what recent research data reveal. The consequences of which leaves a detrimental impact on the patient’s health interests, eventually turning into highly contentious issues, in the socio-political milieu of recent times.

While there are many such contradictions involving the pharma industry, this article will endeavor to understand just one inherent dispute. This is related to the impact of high R&D expenditure on drug prices. It assumes importance, especially at a time, when the world’s most influential pharma trade organization continues arguing in favor of the dictum – high new drug prices are driven by mind-boggling cost of drug innovation, as R&D spending keep shooting north. Incidentally, many others challenge this assertion backed by robust data, claiming it’s not so, actually.

Thus, the question that comes up, if high R&D cost prompts high drug prices, what happens when this major cost of new drug innovation comes down, as is, apparently, happening now. A proper resolution of this contradiction by ushering in transparency in this area, is important to safeguard a critical health interest of many patients. A recent research report, followed by several other important developments in this area, exposes this contradiction, probably more than ever before.  

Some recent reports revealing the contradictions:

To drive home the point of contradictions, I shall cite a few references below, from a pool of many others. For example, one such report of September 26, 2019 unfolded: ‘The cost to bring a new drug to market has decreased to under US$ 2Billion’. This was announced by Clarivate Analytics plc  while releasing the “2019 Centre for Medicines Research (CMR) International Pharmaceutical R&D Factbook.”

Interestingly, another article had sharply contradicted the above, presenting a different story altogether. Quoting the Tufts University Center for the Study of Drug Development, it highlighted that it costs US$ 2.6 billion growing at 8.5 percent annually. However, adding an estimate of post-approval R&D costs increases, the cost estimate to US$ 2870 million. Many estimated, it would take pharma companies more than 15 years of average sales to reach breakeven.

Curiously, a different research paper, titled ‘Comparison of Sales-Income and Research and Development Costs for FDA-Approved Cancer Drugs Sold by Originator Drug Companies,’ published by the JAMA Network Open on January 04, 2019 concluded quite in line with the ‘2019 CMR International Pharmaceutical R&D Factbook.’ It found, ‘Cancer drugs, through high prices, have generated incomes for the companies far in excess of research and development costs; lowering prices of cancer drugs and facilitating greater competition are essential for improving patient access, health system’s financial sustainability, and future innovation.’

Again, contradicting the above, one more article – ‘The Link Between Drug Prices and Research on the Next Generation of Cures,’ published ITIF (Information Technology & Innovation Foundation) on September 09, 2019, touted to: ‘Put simply, drug companies must make significant profits on their best-selling drugs in one generation in order to reinvest in the next generation.’

The saga of contradiction continues.

A glimpse at the current scenario:

While trying to understand the inherent contradiction in the space of cost of drug innovation by analyzing the available data, let us examine the current scenario, of course with reasons. Going by the oft-repeated justification that high R&D expenses drive the drug prices up, the converse scenario would be – a dip in the R&D expenditure should lead to a reduction in medicine prices, commensurately.

But this is unlikely to happen – drug prices won’t possibly come down due to voluntary measures of the drug manufacturers. As various recent developments indicate, it will be clear in the course of this discussion that the same justification won’t be jettisoned anytime soon.

Pharma CEOs do acknowledge that they have some role to play in helping lower drug prices. However, they continue defending prevailing high new drug prices by highlighting, their multibillion-dollar investments in R&D are responsible for advances in treatments of many serious ailments, such as cancer, hepatitis C, schizophrenia and autoimmune diseases.

This was again contradicted by another BMJ Research Study of October 23, 2019, which concludes: ‘A review of the patents associated with new drugs approved over the past decade indicates that publicly supported research had a major role in the late stage developments of at least one in four new drugs, either through direct funding of late stage research or through spin-off companies created from public sector research institutions. These findings could have implications for policy makers in determining fair prices and revenue flows for these products.’ Nevertheless, in the midst of it, signs of a shift in focus of many pharma companies in this area, is clearly discernible. 

Signs of a shift in R&D focus are clearly discernible:

This gets well- reflected in the “2019 Centre for Medicines Research (CMR) International Pharmaceutical R&D Factbook.” As the report unfolds, one of the basic shifts is a change in focus on R&D targets. Until recently, the research focus of most companies was on Noncommunicable Diseases (NCD) such as, Parkinson’s disease, autoimmune diseases, strokes, most heart diseases, most cancers, diabetes, chronic kidney disease, osteoarthritis, osteoporosis, Alzheimer’s disease, and others. Whereas, today there has been an increased focus on rare diseases.  

What does it signify?

It obviously signifies, most companies are now trying to launch steeply priced niche products for rare diseases. This includes complex biologic products, gene therapy, personalized medicine and the likes. Which is why, a majority of current new drug approvals, targets smaller patient populations. For example, between 2010 and 2018, the number of addressable patients per drug approval decreased by 15 percent, as the above report revealed.

The bottom-line, therefore, is with the low hanging fruits already been plucked, many pharma players don’t seem to consider targeting innovation of reasonably priced mass market products. It has already happened with antibiotics and would now probably happen with several NCDs.

Two main drivers for this shift:

The two main drivers for this shift, resulting an increase in drug approvals, and significant reduction in cost per new molecular entity (NME), may be summarized as follows:

  • Increased focus on rare diseases. Of the 57 NMEs launched in 2018, 22 had an orphan drug designation, indicating that they targeted rare disease area.
  • Increased activity of smaller pharmaceutical companies. In 2018, as high as 74 percent of drug launches were developed by companies with an R&D spend of US$ 700 million to US$2 billion. Major pharma companies (R&D spend of greater than US$2 billion) accounted for just 26 percent of drug launches.

A good news!

The increase in new drug approvals driven by smaller pharma companies is a good news and also encouraging. This suggests, becoming a big company with deep pocket is no longer a prerequisite to bring an innovative drug to the market. On the contrary, making R&D programs more efficient is the name of the game, today.

Changing pharma investment strategies:

As is evident from the CMR International Factbook, drug manufacturers’’ investment strategies are also undergoing a makeover. In the R&D domain, external innovation, in general, is now playing a more critical role. Perhaps, more than ever before. In the first half of 2019 alone, global spend for pharma M&A and licensing activities was, reportedly, around US$140 billion. Interestingly, it outpaced projected 2019 R&D spend by more than 60 percent.

Do high R&D cost impact drug prices and vice versa?

This brings us to the key question: Does the high cost of R&D impact drug prices and vice versa? Or, it is being over-hyped as a tool to justify high drug prices. There are umpteen instances to believe so – for example, the world’s best-selling drug – Humira of AbbVie. According to the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) of September 28, 2017, the initial U.S. patent for Humira expired in December 2016, but the additional patents expire in the 2020s.

Interestingly, according to other reports, AbbVie has collected more than US$115 billion in global Humira sales since 2010. In 2018 alone its sales amounted to US$ 19.9 billion. The report reiterates, ‘AbbVie has made and will continue to make a lot of money from Humira.’ From these facts, one can presume that AbbVie’s R&D expenditure or the product acquisition cost, has long been recovered, but still doesn’t seem to have any significant impact on the drug price.

Pharma CEOs continue to repeat the same argument:

While testifying at a hearing of the Senate Finance Committee, pharma CEOs had to confront with a Senators’ question - “Prescription drugs did not become outrageously expensive by accident, Drug prices are astronomically high because that’s where pharmaceutical companies and their investors want them.” However, acknowledging that their prices are high for many patients for high R&D expenditure, the company chiefs tried to deflect blame onto the insurance industry, government and middlemen known as pharmacy benefit managers.

The CEOs also highlighted the rebates given on list prices to benefit patients. However, the reality is, under the current system, savings from rebates are not consistently passed through to patients in any form. Interestingly, despite such scenario, pharma CEOs don’t want the government negotiating drug prices directly. It’s apparent that none of their reasonings were found to be the genuine reasons for high drug prices, even by the US Senators.

Thus, pharma’s points of justification for high drug prices have not changed, over a long period of time. On the contrary, shifting greater focus on the R&D of rare diseases, where the number of patients is much less, the CEOs seem to be bolstering their same argument on a different ground, despite reducing R&D costs.

Surfaces a glaring contradiction:

Presenting the current situation from the drug industry perspective, the article titled, ‘Drug Prices and Innovation’, published in the Forbes Magazine on June 20, 2019, emphasized on some interesting points.

It said: ‘In 2018 return on investment in drug discovery/development were 1.9 percent, far below the 10.5 percent cost-of-capital - the rate-of-return the industry must provide to compete for capital with similar investments.’  The article also emphasized: ‘Under the current pricing regime, the expected returns from drug discovery do not justify the investment. They have not done so since 2010 and are expected to turn negative by 2020.’ It further added, big pharma, despite one of the highest rates of R&D spending of any industry, chronically fails to fund research sufficient to support adequate growth and returns to the average drug don’t cover the cost of development.

On the other hand, according to a presentation by CVS Health that cited Macrotrends.net as its source,pharmaceutical manufacturers’ profit margins have reportedly exceeded 26 percent for the last three years and 22 percent for the past 10 years.

This brings out again, the glaring contradiction between what is being highlighted and what is actually happening in the pharma business. Lack of transparency in this area of the drug industry, is believed to be the root cause of this confusion among many.

Conclusion:

As it has been recognized the world over, the high new drugs prices are an issue over the contentious argument of ‘high R&D expenditure’ being the ‘root cause’.  It is, therefore, imperative for the stakeholders to demand transparency in this area. If finding a solution to this health-related issue is considered critical, without further delay, this needs to be expeditiously addressed.

As the saying goes, once the disease is diagnosed accurately, zeroing in on an effective treatment becomes easier. Let me hasten to add, for new, innovative and patented drugs, the situation in India is generally no different. Thus, there is no scope for any contradiction in this area, whatsoever. As the saying goes, once the disease is diagnosed accurately, zeroing in on an effective treatment becomes easier.

Voluntary implementation of ‘responsible’ drug pricing policies, by pharma manufacturers themselves, has been given a long rope. Time is running out now. If this does not happen soon, government control of drug prices will be essential, just as is being contemplated in the United States – the ‘capital’ of the free-pricing world. Moreover, it has been well documented in several studies that price control won’t jeopardize drug innovation, as pharma manufacturers will have to come out with innovative new products and treatments – event for survival of the business.

Saving lives – more lives, alongside making reasonable profits in the business, remain the primary facet of the pharma industry. However, the flip side of it, revealing a perennial saga of contradictions, such as one we discussed above, raises concerns of their being perceived as profiteering with drug prices, by many. Such practices go not only against patients’ health interest, but also negates the core purpose of existence of the industry – surely, endangering long term survival of this business model – as the modern technology unleashes its mesmerizing power for all.

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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