Unsustainable New Cancer Drug Prices: Resolution Remains A Far Cry

Prices of new drugs for the treatment of life-threatening ailments, such as cancer, are increasingly becoming unsustainable, across the world, and more in India. As articulated by the American Society of Clinical Oncology in 2014, this is primarily due to the fact that their prices are disconnected from the actual therapeutic value of products.

Today, a very large number of poor and even the middle-income patients, who spend their entire life-savings for treatment of a disease like cancer, have been virtually priced out of the patented new drugs market.

The plights of such patients are worse in India and would continue to be so, especially when no trace of Universal Health Care/Coverage (UHC) is currently visible anywhere near the healthcare horizon of the country.

I discussed about the recent decision of the Government for shelving UHC in my recent Blog Post titled, “Would Affordable ‘Modicare’ Remain Just A Pipe Dream In India?

Irresponsible pricing?

To highlight this point, I shall quote from the research paper titled, “Five Years of Cancer Drug Approvals, Innovation, Efficacy and Costs” published in JAMA Oncology dated April 02, 2015. This report states that just one year’s cost of treatment with a patented new cancer drug now routinely exceeds US$ 100,000. It is much known today that the medical bills for cancer treatment have become the single largest cause of personal bankruptcy, in many countries of the world.

The issue is even more impactful and heart wrenching in India, as with much lower per capita income, compared to the global median, a cancer patient pays around the same price for the same patented drugs in the country. Much talked about Nexavar of Bayer, has been a good example.

The above report underscores, the big global pharma players still vigorously contend to establish that the high cost of drugs is required to support their research and development efforts. However, none would possibly deny the hard data that, when costs and revenues are balanced, the pharmaceutical industry generates high profit margins.

On a lighter vain – the fact that the richest person in India is a pharma player of ‘low price generic medicines’ vindicates this point.

The latest report on pharma R&D costs:

In a ‘Press Release’ of November 18, 2014, Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development announced, “Cost to develop and win marketing approval for a New Drug is US$2.6 Billion”.

This is around 2.5 times more than its previous estimate published in 2003, which reads as US$802 million.

Although the study is not publicly available, neither has it been peer reviewed, it does reflect that above overall inflation rate, pharma R&D costs are reportedly going up at an annual rate of around 8 percent!

Even if the R&D cost of US$2.6 Billion is accepted as correct to justify high prices of patented drugs, one should note that this figure is applicable only to those types of New Chemical Entities (NCE) that did not receive any outside funding in their developmental process, such as, from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

It is worth noting, such types of NCEs account for less than one-sixth of the annual new drugs approval in the United States.

Interestingly, Tufts Center receives its funding from the pharmaceutical industry, according to reports.

When is a high cost of medicine defendable?

According to some, high price may be justified, if novel products offer significant benefits to patients giving rise to indirect quantifiable economic value through restoration of health of patients.

This is understandable, as those patented drugs represent significant and well-accepted pharmacological advances over the existing ones, offering novel mechanisms of actions for better treatment value through ‘high-risk-high-cost’ research.

Price is a function of the value that a drug offers:

The price of any drug must be a function of the value that it offers to the patients. Not just the cost of its innovation, irrespective of the fact, whether it is a ‘New-Class (Novel)’ or ‘Next-in Class’ or even a ‘Me-too’ NCE.

The above April 2015 research report published in JAMA Oncology, investigated at length, whether novelty of medications or their relative benefits dictated drug pricing.

In that endeavor, the authors found out that from January 1, 2009, to December 31, 2013, the USFDA approved 51 drugs in oncology for 63 indications. During this period, 9 drugs received more than 1 approved indication.

The study observed:

Of these 51 drugs:

- 21 (41 percent) exert their effect via a novel mechanism of action

- While 30 (59 percent) are next-in-class drugs

Despite this fact, there was no difference in the median price per year of treatment between the 30 next-in-class drugs (US$119, 765) and the 21 novel drugs (US$116, 100).

Global cancer market is soaring high fuelled by astronomical prices:

According to a report that quotes an official of IMS Health, the overall cost for cancer treatments per month in the United States is now US$10,000, up from $5,000 just a year ago. At the same time, according to a 2014 study by the IMS Institute for Healthcare Informatics, global oncology spending has hit US$91 billion in 2013, and despite patent cliff is growing at 5 percent annually.

None likes nightmarish cancer drug-pricing trend:

None likes this worrisome drug-pricing trend, not even in the developed world. God forbid, just one cancer patient in the family can drag even a middle class household to the poverty level, especially in a country like India, where Out of Pocket (OoP) expenses for health hovers around 70 percent and Universal Health Coverage still remains a pipe dream.

Payers, including governments and private insurers, in the top cancer markets such as the United States and Europe, are trying hard to bring the cancer drug prices to a reasonable level through regulatory pressure of various kinds and forms. For example, National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) in the United Kingdom and the regulators for drug cost-effectiveness in other large European countries, are coming hard on patented new cancer drugs with small improvements in survival time but priced much higher than the existing ones.

Even many private insurers in those countries are now raising questions about the additional value offerings in quantifiable terms, especially for the new cancer drugs and other treatments for life-threatening ailments, such as hepatitis C. To give an example, in late 2014, Express Scripts in America negotiated hard for an exclusive deal with AbbVie to provide its hepatitis C treatment Viekira Pak over Gilead’s exorbitantly priced Sovaldi.

Action by the doctors outside India:

In 2012, doctors at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center reportedly announced in ‘The New York Times’ that their hospital would not be using Zaltrap, a newly patented colorectal cancer drug from Sanofi. This action of the Sloan-Kettering doctors compelled Sanofi to cut Zaltrap price by half.

Unlike in India, where prices of even cancer drugs do not seem to be a great issue with the medical profession, just yet, the top cancer specialists of the American Society of Clinical Oncology are reportedly working out a framework for rating and selecting cancer drugs not only on their benefits and side effects, but prices as well.

In a recent 2015 paper, a group of cancer specialists from Mayo Clinic also articulated, that the oft-repeated arguments of price controls stifle innovation are not good enough to justify unusually high prices of such drugs. Their solution for this problem includes value-based pricing and NICE like body of the U.K.

This Interesting Video from Mayo Clinic justifies the argument.

Tokenism by the Indian Government:

India sent a signal to global pharma players about its unhappiness of astronomical pricing of patented new cancer drugs in the country on March 9, 2012. On that day, the then Indian Patent Controller General issued the first ever Compulsory License (CL) to a domestic drug manufacturer Natco, allowing it to sell a generic equivalent of a kidney cancer treatment drug from Bayer – Nexavar, at a small fraction of the originator’s price.

In this context, it won’t be out of place recapitulating that an article published in a global business magazine on December 5, 2013 quoted Marijn Dekkers, the CEO of Bayer AG saying: “Bayer didn’t develop its cancer drug, Nexavar (sorafenib) for India but for Western Patients that can afford it.”

Whether, CL is the right approach to resolve allegedly ‘profiteering mindset’ at the cost of human lives, is a different subject of discussion.

Be that as it may, India did send a very strong signal in this regard, which some construe as mere tokenism. Nonetheless, this action of the Indian Government shook the global pharma world very hard, that it would find difficult to forget in a foreseeable future.

Government’s determination to make it happen is still eluding:

The headline of this article would probably invoke an instant negative response from my friends in the industry, an understandably so, expressing… ‘Hey, are you talking against innovation and suggesting one more regulator for the heavily regulated pharma industry?’ 

I would very humbly say, no…I am suggesting neither of those two, but requesting to give shape to a very important decision already taken by the Government on this issue, in a meaningful way. That decision has been scripted in Para 4.XV of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 (NPPP 2012) and was notified on December 07, 2012.

On ‘Patented Drugs Pricing’, it categorically states as follows:

“There is a separate committee constituted by the Government Order dated February 01, 2007 for finalizing the pricing of Patented Drugs, and decisions on pricing of patented Drugs would be based on the recommendation of this committee.”

The following long drawn unproductive events would vindicate, beyond even an iota of doubt, that a strong determination to make it happen, by even by the new Government, is still eluding by far.

Is this committee ‘Jinxed’?

To utter dismay of the patients and their well-wishers, the above committee took over six years after it was formed to submit its report.

It recommended ‘Reference Pricing’ for the Patented Drugs in India, after adjusting against India’s Gross National Income and Purchasing Power Parity. The suggested ‘Reference Countries’ were UK, Canada, France, Australia and New Zealand, where there exist a strong public health policy, together with tough bargaining power of the governments for drug price negotiations.

However, our Government found this report useless for various reasons and dissolved the panel. The grapevine in the corridors of power whispers, it could possibly be due to intense pressure from the global pharma players and their powerful lobby groups.

Interestingly, again by the end of 2013, the Department of Pharmaceuticals (DoP) set up a brand new inter-ministerial committee with four representatives each from the Ministry of Commerce and Industry, Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) and one from the DoP to resolve the same issue of ‘Patented Drugs Pricing’ in India.

Unfortunately, a serious issue of this magnitude has still remained unresolved, even under the new seemingly dynamic Government, till date. There were media reports though, just prior to the Union Budget in January 2015, that ‘the Government may negotiate prices of patented medicines with their manufacturers before allowing pharmaceutical companies to launch them in India.’

The scenario is still far from even sketchy. A lurking fear, therefore, creeps into the minds of many: Is this committee on ‘Patented Drugs Pricing’ jinxed or incompetent or has deliberately been kept non-functional under tremendous external pressure on pricing of patented drugs?

The way forward:

To find an implementable ‘Patented Drug Pricing Model’ soon, the new committee of the Government should consider Pharmacoeconomics Based or Value-Based Pricing (PBP/VBP) Model for the country.

Pharmacoeconomics, as we know, is a scientific model of setting price of a medicine commensurate to the economic value of the drug therapy.  Pharmacoeconomics principles, therefore, intend to maximize the value obtained from expenditures towards medicines through a structured evaluation of products costs and disease outcomes.

Thus, PBP/VBP basically offers the best value for money spent. It ‘is the costs and consequences of one treatment compared with the costs and consequences of alternative treatments’.

To the best of my knowledge, the Public Health Foundation of India, spearheaded by well-reputed internationally acclaimed physician – Dr. Srinath Reddy, has requisite expertise in this area and to build on it further, as required by the committee.

This new model would help establishing in India that the price of any drug is always a key function of the value that it offers and not of the so called ‘high cost of innovation’, irrespective of whether it is a ‘New-Class (Novel)’ or ‘Next-in Class’ or even ‘Me-Too’ NCE.

The concept is gaining ground: 

The concept of ‘Value-Based Pricing’, has started gaining ground in the developed markets of the world, prompting the pharmaceutical companies generate requisite ‘health outcome’ data using similar or equivalent products.

Cost of incremental value that a product delivers over the existing ones, is of key significance and should always be the order of the day. Some independent organizations such as, the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) in the UK have taken a leading role in this area.


Warren Buffet – the financial investor of global repute once said, “Price is what you pay. Value is what you get.” Unfortunately, this dictum is not applicable to the consumers of high priced life saving drugs, such as, for cancer.

Price tags of most of the patented new cancer drugs, do not seem to give any indication that the pharma players believe in this pricing model, even remotely. As JAMA Oncology has established in their recent research study, there is no difference in the median price of per year of treatment between ‘Next-in-Class’ and ‘Novel Drugs’.

Thus far, India has been able to address this issue either through section 3(d) or Compulsory Licensing (CL) provisions of its Patents Act. As the saying goes, ‘proof of the pudding is in the eating’, the net fall-out of these measures has been demonstrably profound. For example, the global pharma giant Gilead has entered into voluntary License (VL) agreements with several local companies to market in India one of the most expensive products of the world – Sovaldi, at a small fraction of its original price of US$1,000/tablet. 

That said, effective long-term resolution of ‘Patented Drugs Pricing’ issue, in my view, is long overdue in India, especially for the treatment of life-threatening diseases, such as cancer. This has been necessitated by the fact that in many cases, therapeutic benefits of most of these drugs are not commensurate to their high costs.

The provision for ‘Patented Drugs Pricing’ has already been made in the NPPP 2012, though not implemented, as yet. While working out an implementable mechanism for the same, the new committee of the present Government may consider ‘Pharmacoeconomics Based or Value-Based Pricing (PBP/VBP) Model’ to effectively resolve this crucial issue. The specialized group that will operate this system could be a part of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) of India.

The struggle for life in the fierce battle against dangerous ailments, without having access to new life-saving drugs, has indeed assumed a mind-boggling dimension in India, especially in the absence of Universal Health Coverage. It would continue to remain so, unless the new Government demonstrates its will to act, putting in place a transparent model of patented drugs pricing, without succumbing to any power play or pressures of any kind from vested interests.

The bottom-line is: It has to happen soon…very soon. For patients’ sake.

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.

The Game Changers in 2012 and A Crystal Gazing into 2013

Wish You and Your Dear Ones Best of Health, Happiness, Success and Prosperity in The Brand New Year.

Welcome 2013

 The Global Pharmaceutical Industry (GPI), by and large, used to be considered as ‘recession-proof’ for various valid reasons. However, the waves of ‘global economic meltdown’ since last several years prompted the rating service Moody to downgrade its outlook to ‘Negative’ in 2007.

However, on September 24, 2012 the same rating service upgraded the outlook of the GPI to ‘Stable’ from “Negative,” indicating subsiding impact of the wave of drug patent expiration, come 2013.

Various other sources also vindicate that the GPI has in fact now bottomed-out. Available data from IMS Health estimates that the industry will grow from US$ 956 billion in 2011 to around US$ 1004 billion by end 2012 with a growth of approximately 5 percent driven mainly by:

-      Cost optimization

-      Higher  disease prevalence across the world

-      Increasing per capita income

The United States continue to maintain its top slot in the industry followed by the European Union and Japan.

All may not be hunky-dory in the GPI just yet, nevertheless 2013 does point towards some early signs of revival after a very uncertain period, prompting a paradigm shift, especially in the mind-set of the global players. This emerging trend could well form a separate topic of discussion altogether in some other time.

Buoyancy in India:

Back home in India the situation is quite different. The Indian Pharmaceutical Industry (IPI) still remains recession-proof. The market buoyancy continued as ‘PharmaTrac India’ reported a turnover of the domestic pharmaceutical market at around US$ 12.6 billion growing over 15 percent annually.

In this article I shall focus on the domestic pharmaceutical market of India.

The Game Changers of 2012:

Looking back, during the year 2012 the ‘Top Five Game Changers’ for the Indian Pharmaceutical Market (IPM), in my opinion, are as follows:

1. A DIFFERENT ‘Drug Policy’ after 10 years:

The ‘National Pharmaceutical Pricing Policy 2012 (NPPP 2012)’ heralds a paradigm shift in the pharmaceutical price control regime of India for the years ahead with a switch from the ‘Cost Based Pricing CBP)’ methodology to ‘Market Based Pricing (MBP)’ and also in its ‘National List of Essential Medicines 2011 (NLEM 2011)’ based span of price control.

The industry has already articulated, though the new policy will make an immediate and significant adverse financial impact on them, market based pricing is directionally prudent for all in the longer term. They feel that MBP is expected to help improving both affordability and availability of medicines.

Such a policy, some stakeholders believe, along with the Government initiative to make essential medicines available free of cost through public hospitals and health centers will benefit all sections of the society, giving a boost to overall consumption of pharmaceutical products in India. It is also good to note that the new policy promises price control exemptions for patented drugs and products with NDDS developed in India through indigenous R&D.

NPPP 2012, is expected to be a game changer for the industry by many, as it will help bringing more stability in the pharma pricing regulation system of India.

However, there is a flip side to this story.

All stakeholders are not equally happy with the NPPP 2012.

In this context, it is worth noting that in an ongoing Public Interest Litigation before the Supreme Court by ‘All India Drug Action Network (AIDAN)’, the petitioner has already drawn the attention of the Court to their ‘Interim Application’ challenging the NPPP 2012 by stating that the ‘policy finalized by the Government will in effect do away with the very notion of price controls’. In response the apex court reportedly had observed that it will consider the averments of AIDAN in the next hearing of January 15, 2013, once the printed Gazette Notification is put on record before the Court by the Government.

2. First ever grant of Compulsory License in India:

On March 12, 2012, Indian Patent Office (IPO), in its landmark ruling, granted its first ever Compulsory License (CL) for Bayer’s patented kidney and liver cancer drug Nexavar (Sorafenib), to the generic pharma player Natco, broadly citing the following reasons:

  • Reasonable requirements of public under Section 84 have not been satisfied.
  • The Patented Drug was not available to the public at a reasonably affordable price as per Section 84 (1) (b).
  • Patented invention is not worked in the territory of India as per Section 84 (1) (c)

The 62 page order of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trade Mark (CGPDTM) granted the CL to Natco for the rest of patent life of sorafenib in India at the high end of the UNDP 2001 royalty guidelines at 6 percent.

Though the research based pharmaceutical industry across the world expressed its deep disappointment and anguish over the judgment, many experts and NGOs from different parts of the globe, on the contrary, have reportedly hailed this order as a game changer to improve access to high-priced patented medicines in the country with a firm conviction that the ‘Intellectual Property Rights (IPR)’ and ‘Patients’ Access Issues’ can not tread different paths. They have reportedly opined that CGPDTM has set a right precedence by granting a CL for an exceptionally high-priced sorafenib, which will ensure, in the times to come, that “patent monopolies are kept limited, especially when the patented products are not ‘reasonably affordable’, as stated in the statute”.

Many people, therefore, envisage that if responsible pricing strategy for patented medicines is not followed in India even after the grant of first ever CL by the IPO, one could  well expect other generic players applying for CL mainly for the imported high priced patented medicines purely as a business strategy, but citing the reason of improving patients’ access in the country.

3. First ever Guidelines for Biosimilar Drugs in India: 

Across the world, biologic drugs have a successful record in treating many life threatening and other complicated ailments. Expiration of product patents of the first major group of originators’ biologic molecules has led to the development of products that are designed to be ‘similar’ to the originators’ products, as it is virtually impossible to replicate any protein substances, unlike the ‘small molecule’ drugs. These are ‘Biosimilar Drugs’, which rely, in part, on prior information obtained from the innovators’ products and demonstration of similarity with the originator’s molecule based on detailed and comprehensive product characterization, for their marketing approval.

India has the potential to become one of the key players in the development and manufacture of biosimilar drugs, not only to serve the needs of the local population, but also for export to large developed markets. However, for this dream to materialize, a science-driven ‘Biosimilar Guidelines’ are absolutely necessary. These guidelines provide a regulatory framework or pathway to ensure that ‘Biosimilar Drugs’ are of good quality and demonstrably similar in efficacy, safety and immunogenicity to the original reference products.

Considerable developments have occurred across the globe, in the scientific and regulatory understanding of biosimilar drugs. Nearly all developed nations and many developing countries have now defined appropriate regulatory framework for the same. However, due to lack of such guidelines in India, until recently, there have been instances of so called ‘biosimilar drugs’ being approved for marketing, reportedly with sub-optimal testing and dossiers, thereby putting into question product quality, comparability and patient safety.

Under this back-drop, the need for such a regulatory framework and comprehensive guidelines is even greater in India, mainly in the light of sub-optimal pharmacovigilance system in the country, besides other reasons.

Keeping these issues in view, the Ministries of Health & Family Welfare and the Science and Technology released India’s first “Guidelines on Similar Biologics: Regulatory Requirements for Marketing Authorization in India” in 2012. These Guidelines have been made operational effective September 15, 2012.

Long awaited new ‘Biosimilar Guidelines’ of India, demonstrating an overall similarity in the philosophy and approach with the those in the U.S and Europe, though a belated move by the Government, but certainly yet another game changer of 2012.

I reckon, this critical step will help ‘Made in India’ biosimilar drugs availing opportunities in the emerging biosimilar markets of the world including Europe and America.

4. Increase in National Health Expenditure Budget from 1% to 2.5% of GDP:

This decision of the Government in 2012 could help paving the way to provide basic healthcare services to all citizens of India through “Universal Health Coverage (UHC)”, which has the vast potential to be another game changer in the healthcare space of India.

It is envisaged that UHC will ensure guaranteed access to essential health services for every citizen of the country, including cashless in-patient and out-patient treatment for primary, secondary and tertiary care. All these services will be available to the patients absolutely free of any cost.

Under UHC all citizens of India will be free to choose between Public Sector facilities and ‘contracted-in’ Private Providers for healthcare services. It is envisaged that people would be free to supplement the free of cost healthcare services offered under UHC by opting to pay ‘out of pocket’ or going for private health insurance schemes.

Thus, UHC, I reckon, will also be able to address simultaneously the critical issue of high ‘out of pocket’ healthcare expenses of the common citizens and at the same time increase consumption of overall healthcare, giving a boost to the growth of the pharma industry together with other healthcare sectors.

Implemented sooner, ignoring motivated stalling tactics by the vested interests, if any, could usher-in the dawn of a new healthcare reform process in India for all.

5. Announcement of Distribution of Essential Drugs free of cost to all, from Government Hospitals and Dispensaries:

In July 2012 the Government of India took a landmark ‘Public Healthcare’ related initiative to provide unbranded generic formulations of all essential drugs, featuring in the ‘National List of Essential Medicines 2011’, free of cost to all patients, from the public hospitals and dispensaries across the country.

This social sector project was expected to roll out, as reported in the media, from October/November 2012 with a cost of around US$ 5 billion during the 12th Five Year Plan period of the country. Considering medicines account for around 70% of the total ‘Out of Pocket’ expenses, this particular initiative is expected to be yet another game changer to benefit, especially the poorer patients of the society.

This new scheme, I reckon, has also the potential to hasten the overall growth of the pharmaceutical industry, as poor patients who could not afford will now have access to essential medicines. On the other hand, rapidly growing middle class population will continue to favor branded generic drugs prescribed by the doctors at the private hospitals and clinics.

Some people are apprehending that generic drug makers will have brighter days as the project starts rolling on. This apprehension is based on the assumption that large branded generic players will be unable to take part in this big ticket drug procurement process of the Government, which seems to be imaginary.

However, in my view, it could well be a win-win situation for all types of players in the industry, where both the generic-generic and branded-generic businesses will continue to grow simultaneously.

That said procedural delays and drug quality issues, while procuring cheaper generics, may pose to be a great challenge for the Government to ensure speedier implementation of this project. Drug regulatory and law enforcing authorities will require to be extremely vigilant to ensure that while sourcing cheaper generic drugs, “Public health and safety” due to quality issues do not get compromised in any way.

A Crystal Gazing into 2013:

While Crystal Gazing into 2013, following seven possible developments come to the top of my mind:

  1. New Drug Policy may get caught in Public Interest Litigation (PIL).
  2. UHC related pilot projects may start coming up.
  3. More stringent regulatory requirements for Clinical Trials, Product Marketing approvals, Pricing of Patented Medicines and Ethical Marketing practices may come into in-force.
  4. Along with public investments more private initiatives, both global and local, are expected in the healthcare infrastructure space including in e-healthcare.
  5. Domestics Pharma Companies could challenge increasing number of patents and may also apply for Compulsory Licenses following the set precedence of 2012.
  6. The Supreme Court judgment on Glivec case could bring more clarity in ‘incremental innovation’ in general and the Section 3(d) in particular.
  7. More consolidation within the pharmaceutical industry may take place with valuation still remaining high.


The year 2012, especially for the pharmaceutical industry in India, was indeed eventful. The ‘Top Five’ that I have picked-up out of various interesting developments during the year, could in many ways be the ‘Game Changers’ for the industry during the years ahead.

Key measures, both in the public and private space, be it fostering R&D or improving access to healthcare for the general population, fell well short of adequate even in 2012.

My ‘Crystal Gazing into 2013’, if comes true, will make the year even more eventful in India. The new year could signal herald of yet another interesting  paradigm. A paradigm that may churn quite different sets of rapidly evolving issues requiring more innovative honed skill-sets for their speedy redressal, as the time keeps moving on.

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 and also do not contribute to any other blog or website with the same article that I post in this website. Any such act of reproducing my articles, which I write in my personal capacity, in other blogs or websites by anyone is unauthorized and prohibited.