Free and Public

An odd one out or part of the same system? By Mohga Kamal-Yanni, Senior health policy advisor, Oxfam

“It was a business decision. It was about money. And screw you.” A journalist said after talking to Martin Shkreh the CEO of Turin, the US-based pharmaceutical company. The company shocked the US when it raised the price of daraprim, a 62 years old medicine by 5000% from $13.5 to $750 per tablet. The US Pharmaceutical companies association (PhRMA) was quick to tweet that “.@TuringPharma does not represent the values of @PhRMA member companies.”So is PhRMA right?

In reality Turin represents a typical symptom of the same disease: putting profit before patients. Otherwise how can we explain the escalating price of new (and sometimes old) medicines not only in Europe and US but also in low and middle income countries? Take Gilead’s medicine that cures hepatitis C as an example. Sofosbuvir (marketed as Sovaldi) was launched at $1000/pill/day. Even at the reduced price offered to some countries, the price is too high. We estimated that treating just half patients suffering with hepatitis C would have cost the Egyptian ministry of health nearly two thirds of its budget.

New cancer medicines are reaching the market at exorbitantly priced and thus unaffordable in most countries even in Europe and the US. NICE, the body that advises the UK’s NHS on medicines rejected Roche’s breast cancer medicine trastuzumab emtansine (Kadcyla) not because of ineffectiveness but because of its high price. Needless to say the price is far beyond the dreams of patients in developing countries.

Patients and advocates for access to medicines have been campaigning on access to medicines in developing countries for years. Their success is clear when the price of the anti-HIV cocktail dropped from US$ 10,000/patient/year to around US $100. Now similar actions have started in rich countries too. One of these groups sent a letter to Jeremy Hunt the UK secretary of health urging him to issue a compulsory license that enables the importation of cheaper versions of the same medicine so that women are not denied a life saving treatment.

Having “temporary” monopoly over pricing seems to be not enough for pharmaceutical companies. Pharma lobbyists carry significant influence in the corridors of power pressurising governments to design and enforce rules that exceed what is already agreed at the WTO through the TRIPS[1] agreement.

Intense lobbying to increase intellectual property rules in free trade agreements has created global public anger. Last September a cancer patient was arrested when she was accused of disrupting the negotiation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The recently concluded TPP negotiations were carried out over more than five years in secret and the text will only be available for elected bodies and the public when it is ready for signing.

Free trade agreements (FTAs) like the TPP are notorious for expanding corporate powers at the expense of public health and the public interest. For example, the FTAs allow corporations to sue governments over measures to promote access to medicines (such as price controls, reimbursement decisions, marketing approvals, and drug safety decisions, or stricter patentability standards). Corporations argue that such measures would damage their investments, which they insist must be protected by the FTAs. This is already happening as Eli Lily has taken the Canadian government to court over government action to make some drugs affordable.

Similar damaging FTAs are currently being negotiated –also behind closed doors- between the EU and Thailand, India and the US.

Moreover, when developing countries try to use legal tools to control or decrease prices, they are put under huge pressure from rich countries under the influence of ‘big pharma’. When Thailand issued compulsory licensing for key medicines to treat HIV and cardiovascular diseases, ‘big pharma’ launched intense pressure on the country to revoke the decision. Under the influence of ‘big pharma’, the US trade representative put Thailand on the Special 301 ‘Priority Watch list’ of countries, which subjects countries to extreme pressure from the US government. Pharma’s influence on the EC resulted in pressure from the European Commission on the Thai govt to change its decision.

Recently some Members of US congress wrote to the US administration urging it to put pressure on India to change its national intellectual property law in order to strengthen monopoly protections on pharmaceuticals. The law had previously been challenged in court by one pharmaceutical company but the court turned the claim down. Changing the Indian law by increasing intellectual property protection will deprive patients from access to needed medicines not only in India but also in the rest of the developing countries. India is considered “the pharmacy” of developing countries.

The root of the companies’ monopoly power and influence is the current model for funding for research and development (R&D) of medicines. Pharmaceutical companies justify the high prices of medicines by the need to recover the R&D costs. Yet the actual cost of R&D is kept as a big secret by the industry. In reality it is becoming increasingly clear that medicine pricing is not determined by production costs and a profit margin, but by what the market can bear.

Clearly the current R&D system is failing patients and health providers all over the world. It is high time that global leaders work for an alternative system that separates the financing of R&D from pricing the resulting medicines. It cannot be left to the pharmaceutical industry to cater only to those who can afford to pay high prices- practically deciding who lives and who dies.

 


[1] Trade Related Aspects on Intellectual Property Rights

 

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Global Health Check is edited by Anna Marriott, Health Policy Advisor for Oxfam GB, and welcomes contributions from different authors. If you would like to write an article for this site or if you have any queries please contact: amarriott@oxfam.org.uk.