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Cancer medicines and monopolies: perpetuating inequalities By Malini Aisola, Access to medicine coordinator, Oxfam India

Cancer, a global cause of death and suffering is on the rise. WHO estimates that cancers accounted for 8.2 million deaths in 2012 which is projected to increase to 11.5 million deaths by 2030. The majority of cancer mortality and morbidity (70% of deaths and 60% of new cases in 2012) is in developing countries. Weak access to prevention and to early diagnosis exacerbates illness in these countries. Moreover, the high cost of treatment pushes people deeper into poverty, resulting in a rising inequality.

A report on the pricing of medicines for cancer treatment by Ellen‘t Hoen discusses the unsustainability of the high prices of newer medicines. The report also provides evidence of a problem that is looming large not only in low- and middle-income countries (LMICs) but also in wealthy countries.

The report points out that while numbers of cancer deaths are reducing in wealthy countries because of access to early diagnosis and treatment, the incidence and prevalence is increasing in developing countries. In India it is projected that the number of patients with cancer will reach 1.1 million by 2020. When cancer medicines are priced out of the reach of most people living in developing countries, it compounds the challenges of accessing treatment, exacerbating illness and contributing to preventable suffering.

Even in rich countries the prices of newer cancer medicines are being questioned against a backdrop of escalating health care costs. For example, the recent decision to delist 16 medicines from the UK’s Cancer Drug Fund has elicited furious debate about the high price tag of treatments that deliver limited clinical benefits and equity in providing access to all patients under the NHS.

Access to anticancer medicines is aggravated the world over by intellectual property rights held by pharmaceutical companies and by companies’ pricing strategies. Multinational pharmaceutical companies holding the intellectual rights to new medicines justify high and often exorbitant prices as a necessary means to recover research and development (R&D) costs. However, this explanation is not possible to verify since transparency about costs is lacking. In addition, public funding contributes significantly to the development of new cancer medicines. The report contrasts the best estimates of Novartis’ R&D expenditure on imatinib (Glivec), $38-96 million, with the sales of the drug in 2012 which came to $4.7 billion. Pricing to maximise profits has proven to be very lucrative for pharmaceutical companies. The industry’s global oncology sales were worth $61.45 billion in 2012 and are expected to increase to $81.3 billion by 2018.

There is now a global consensus that the current R&D model that maintains monopolies and leads to high prices of medicines is broken. New ways of financing biomedical innovation that de-link the cost of R&D from the price of the product are being debated and piloted at the WHO.

Yet there is intense pressure on governments that are taking measures to increase affordability and access to medicines from the pharmaceutical industry and the governments protecting its interests. The current pressures on India are a prime example.

The US government, on behalf of the commercial interests of its pharmaceutical companies, is engaged in an intense effort to undermine India’s use of public health safeguards enshrined in India’s intellectual property regime. The industry seeks to force the introduction of TRIPS-plus provisions (such as data exclusivity and patent linkage) that will prolong monopolies on medicines and delay generic entry into the market. India has now been stopped from advancing a compulsory license for an anti-leukaemia medicine, dasatinib.

Experiences from the global fight for HIV treatment over the last decade have taught us that generic competition is the most robust and effective way of bringing down the price of medicines. If the US government is successful in imposing its demands on India, the generic supply of life saving medicines and the health of people living in India and other developing countries will be seriously threatened.

The Access to Cancer Treatment report presents evidence of the scale of the problem of access to cancer medicines and recommends how it may be tackled. What is clear is that we are at a tipping point where high prices for cancer medicines and the resulting lack of access to treatment are neither justified nor acceptable. The stage is set for the governments to act in favour of patients and to find workable solutions to what has become one the greatest challenges to equity and access to medicines in our time. Will we act?



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Global Health Check was created by Anna Marriott and is currently edited by Mohga Kamal-Yanni