The costs of most of the new life saving drugs, used in the treatment of dreaded diseases such as cancer, have now started going north at a brisk pace, more than ever before.
From the global pharma industry perspective, the standard answer to this disturbing phenomenon has remained unchanged over a period of time. It continues to argue; with the same old emphasis and much challenged details that the high drug price is due to rapidly escalating R&D expenses.
However, experts have reasons to believe that irrespective of R&D costs, the companies stretch the new drug prices to the farthest edge to maximize profits. Generation of highest possible revenue for the product is the goal. Passing on the benefits of the new drug to a large number of patients does not matter, at all.
How credible is the industry argument?
In this context, let me take the example of Hepatitis C drug – Sovaldi of Gilead. Many now know that for each patient Sovaldi costs US$ 30,000 a month and US$ 84,000 for a treatment course.
According to an article published in Forbes, one health executive estimated that the annual price tag for Sovaldi could reach US$ 300 Billion because so many people have Hepatitis C infection worldwide. This mindboggling amount is more than all spending on all drugs in the United States, currently. A more realistic number might be between US$7 Billion and $12 Billion a year. Even that amount is roughly five times the amount Gilead spends each year on research.
Like Sovaldi, in many other instances too, industry argument of recovering high R&D investment through product pricing would fall flat on its face.
Need to put all the cards on the table:
The distinguished author underscores in his article the expected responsibilities of the experts in this area to ask the global pharma industry to connect the dots for all us between:
- The societal goals they aim to achieve
- The costs they incur on R&D
- The profits they should reasonably be earning.
Public investments in R&D:
Another article titled, “Putting Price On Life”, argues that R&D projects are mainly initiated in the public sphere through tax-funded research. Unfortunately, patients do not derive any benefit of these public investments in terms of reduction in prices for the related drugs. On the contrary, they effectively pay for these new products twice – once through tax-funded research and then paying full purchase price of the same drug.
Additionally, industry corners the praise for the work done by others in tax-funded research, while at the same time making R&D less risky, as public funded research groups carry out most of the initial risk prone and breakthrough innovation.
The article also highlights that global pharma companies receive other tax credits over billions of dollars for their expenditure on R&D. However, the R&D figures that are produced are not adjusted to take into account the tax credits, thereby inflating costs and the prices of drugs.
All these tax credits significantly lower the private costs of doing the R&D in the United States, increasing the private returns. Interestingly, there does not seem to be any public information regarding who gets the tax credit and what the credit is used for, while the government does not retain any rights in the R&D.
Does pharma R&D always create novel drugs?
According to a report, US-FDA approved 667 new drugs from 2000 to 2007. Out of these only 75 (11 percent) were innovative molecules having much superior therapeutic profile than the available drugs. However, more than 80 percent of 667 approved molecules were not found to be better than those, which are already available in the market.
Thus, the question that very often being raised by many is, why so much money is spent on discovery and development of ‘me-too’ drugs, and thereafter on aggressive marketing for their prescription generation? This is important, as the patients pay for the entire cost of such drugs including the profit, after being prescribed by the doctors?
Should Pharma R&D move away from its traditional models?
The critical point to ponder today, should the pharmaceutical R&D now move from its traditional comfort zone of expensive one company initiative to a much less charted frontier of sharing drug discovery involving many players? If this approach gains acceptance sooner, it could lead to significant increase in R&D productivity at a much lesser cost, benefiting the patients at large.
Finding the right pathway in this direction is more important today than ever before, as the R&D productivity of the global pharmaceutical industry, in general, keeps going south and that too at a faster pace.
Current IPR mechanism failing to deliver:
Current mechanism of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR), especially in the pharmaceutical space, undoubtedly facilitates spiraling high drug prices with no respite to patients and payers, as access to these drugs gets severely restricted to the privileged few, denying ‘right to life’ to many.
Moreover, the current global ‘Pharma Patent System’ does not differentiate between qualities of innovations. The system extends equal incentives for pricing the drugs as high as possible, even if those offer little advantages to patients. Fortunately, this loophole has been plugged in the Indian Patents Act 2005, to a large extent.
That said, there is no well-structured incentive available to develop clinically superior drugs with public funding, even in India, so that prices could be significantly lower with equally lesser risks to the companies too.
Current pricing system of patented medicines is even more intriguing, as these have no direct or indirect co-relationship with R&D expenditures incurred by the respective players. On the contrary, drug prices allegedly go up due to other avoidable high expenditures, such as, physicians’ gratification oriented marketing, which includes even reported bribing, high profile political lobbying and private jet setting key executives lifestyle with exorbitant compensation packages, besides others.
To effectively address this issue, besides public R&D funding, there has been a number of suggestions for creation of a win-win pathway like, creation of “Health Impact Fund’. There are other inclusive, sustainable and cost effective R&D models too, such as ‘Open Innovation’ and ‘Accelerating Medicines Partnership (AMP)’, to choose from.
A recent HBR Article titled “A Social Brain Is a Smarter Brain” also highlighted, “Open innovation projects (where organizations facing tricky problems invite outsiders to take a crack at solving them) always present cognitive challenges, of course. But they also force new, boundary-spanning human interactions and fresh perspective taking. They require people to reach out to other people, and thus foster social interaction.” This articulation further reinforces the relevance of a new, contemporary and inclusive drug innovation model for greater patient access with reasonable affordability.
Be that as it may, ‘Patented Drug Pricing’ does not seem to have any relevance to a company’s investments towards R&D. On the contrary, the companies charge the maximum price that they could possibly handle to maximize profits on these life saving medicines.
In an environment of indifference like this, it is the responsibility of other stakeholders, especially the government, to ensure, by invoking all available measures, that life saving medications for dreaded diseases such as cancer, can get to those who need them the most, come what may.
Is the ever-alert new Government listening?
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.