Should high prices of new drugs, causing low access to majority of patients, be attributed to high R&D cost?

Many thought leaders have been arguing since long that pharmaceutical R&D expenses are being over stated and the real cost is much less. An article titled “Demythologizing the high costs of pharmaceutical research”, published by the London School of Economics and Political Science in 2011 indicates that the total cost from discovery and development stages of a new drug to its market launch was around US$ 802 million in year 2000. This was worked out in 2003 by the ‘Tuft Center for the Study of Drug Development’ in Boston, USA.

However, in 2006 the same figure increased by 64 per cent to US$ 1.32 billion, as reported by a pharmaceutical industry association. Maintaining similar trend, if one assumes that the R&D cost will increase by another 64 per cent by 2012, the cost to bring a new drug to the market through its discovery and development stages will be around US $2.16 billion. This will mean a 2.7 times increase from its year 2000 estimate, the article says.

The authors mentioned that the following factors were not considered while working out the 2006 figure of US$ 1.32 billion:

  • The tax exemptions that the companies avail for investing in R&D.
  • Tax write-offs amount to taxpayers’ contributing almost 40% of the R&D cost.
  • The cost of basic research (should not have been included), as these are mostly done in public funded universities or laboratories.

The article comments that ‘half the R&D costs are inflated estimates of profits that companies could have made if they had invested in the stock market instead of R&D and include exaggerated expenses on clinical trials’.

The authors alleged that “Pharmaceutical companies have a strong vested interest in maximizing figures for R&D as high research and development costs have been the industry’s excuse for charging high prices. It has also helped generating political capital worth billions in tax concessions and price protection in the form of increasing patent terms and extending data exclusivity.”

The study concludes by highlighting that “the real R&D cost for a drug borne by a pharmaceutical company is probably about US$ 60 million.”

Declining Pharmaceutical R&D productivity:

That pharmaceutical R&D productivity is fast declining has been vindicated by ‘2011 Pharmaceutical R&D Factbook’ complied by Thomson Reuters, the key highlights of which are as follows:

  • 21 new molecular entities (NMEs) were launched in the global market in 2010, which is a decrease from 26 NMEs of the previous year.
  • 2010 saw the lowest number of NMEs launched by major Pharma players in the last 10 years
  • The number of drugs entering Phase I and Phase II clinical trials fell 47% and 53% respectively during the year.

Does pharmaceutical R&D always create novel drugs?

According to a recent report, US-FDA approved 667 new drugs from 2000 to 2007. Out of which only 75 (11%) were innovative molecules having much superior therapeutic profile than the existing ones. However, more than 80% of 667 approved molecules were not found to be better than those, which are already available in the market.  Thus, the question very often being raised by many is, why so much money is spent on discovery and development of ‘me-too’ drugs and thereafter for their prescription generation through aggressive marketing, when the patients pay for the entire cost of such drugs including the profit after being prescribed by the doctors?

A global CEO challenged the status quo:

By challenging the status quo, Andrew Witty, the global CEO of GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) in his speech  in Mumbai on September 27, 2011 to the members of the Indian pharmaceutical industry commented that the cost of over a billion dollar to bring a new molecule to the market through its discovery and development stages is “unacceptable.” He attributed such high R&D expenses to the ‘cost of failure’ by the industry.

Witty said, “High in-house failure rates are slowing progress on pricing affordability… We need to fail less and deliver more”.

He commented during his deliberation that success in reducing the R&D cost to make innovative drugs more affordable to the patients of all income levels, across the globe, will be the way forward in the years ahead.

Ways to reduce the R&D cost:

Some other experts articulated that sharp focus in the following areas may help containing the R&D expenditure to a great extent and the savings thus made, in turn, can fund a larger number of R&D projects:

  • Early stage identification of unviable new molecules and jettisoning them quickly
  • Newer cost efficient R&D models, like one implemented by GSK
  • Significant reduction in drug development time.

An opposite view:

The book  titled “Pharmaceutical R&D: Costs, Risks, and Rewards”, published by the government of USA states that the three most important components of R&D investment are:

  • Money
  • Time
  • Risk

Money is just one component of investment together with a long duration of time to reap the benefits of success intertwined with a very high risk of failure. The investors in the pharmaceutical R&D projects not only take into account of how much investment is required for the project against expected financial returns, but also the timing of inflow and outflow of fund with associated risks.  It is thus quite understandable that longer is the wait for the investors to get their return, greater will be their expectations for the same.

The publication also highlights that the cost of bringing a new drug from the ‘mind to market’ depends on quality and sophistication of science and technology involved in a particular R&D process together with associated investment requirements for the same. In addition, regulatory requirements to get marketing approval of a complex molecule for various serious disease types are also getting more and more stringent, increasing their cost of clinical development simultaneously. All these factors when taken together make the cost of R&D very high and unpredictable.

Thus to summarize, high pharmaceutical R&D costs involve:

  • Sophisticated science and technology dependent high up-front financial investments
  • A long and indefinite period of negative cash flow
  • High tangible and intangible costs for acquiring technology with rapid trend of obsolescence
  • High risk of failure at any stage of product development


While getting engaged in to this debate, one should possibly keep in mind that effective patent exclusivity period in the pharmaceutical industry is much limited as compared to any other industry across the globe. This is mainly because a long period of 8-10 years goes between drug discovery/grant of patent, drug development and market launch of the new molecule, when it starts recovering the cost and making a profit. Thus the period of effective commercial exclusivity that a new drug enjoys through patent protection usually lasts not more than 10 to 12 year period.

For all these reasons and despite such a huge controversy, I wonder, even if the R&D expenditures are brought down to the year 2000 level of US$ 802 million through various productivity improvement measures, whether it will really be possible to develop a commercial R&D model by any pharmaceutical company to deliver low price innovative drugs ensuring high access to majority of the patients. For that one should possibly look at other R&D models like, ‘Patent Pool’ and ‘Open Source Drug Discovery (OSDD)’ systems along with various funding options.

Thus in my view, high prices of new drugs, causing low access to majority of patients, should by and large be attributed to high R&D cost. However, there is not even an iota of doubt about commercial unsustainability of such ballooning research and development expenditures even in the medium term.

That said, the arithmetic of pricing for a new marketable molecule could change dramatically, if “the real R&D cost for a drug borne by a pharmaceutical company be just about US$ 60 million”, as argued by the authors of a publication quoted above, though the figure, I reckon, is quite unrealistic.

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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