On World Cancer Day in 2016 (4 February) the Fix the Patent Laws coalition in South Africa launched the Campaign for Access to Trastuzumab to advocate for broad access to the WHO-recommended essential treatment for early stage and metastatic HER2+ breast cancer[i]. One year later we are renaming the campaign the Tobeka Daki Campaign in memory of the woman who led our advocacy for trastuzumab during 2016 – whilst herself unable to access the potentially life-saving treatment.
Tobeka Daki was a single mother from Mdantsane Township in South Africa who was diagnosed with HER2+ breast cancer in 2013. Following her diagnosis, Tobeka was informed that she needed trastuzumab, in addition to a mastectomy and chemotherapy, to improve her chances of survival. A chance of survival that Tobeka was denied – not for medical reasons – but because she could not afford to buy the medicine .Tobeka’s cancer spread to her spine and on 14 November 2016 she died in her home.
In South Africa, a 12-month course of trastuzumab costs approximately ZAR 516,700 ($38,000) – or around 5 times the country’s average household income. Given its unaffordability, trastuzumab is not available in South Africa’s public health sector[ii] where more than 80% of the country’s population seek care. Additionally, high co-payments required by medical insurers to access the treatment are simply unaffordable for many who use the private sector.
Despite very limited access, Roche is able to generate significant income from the sale of trastuzumab in the South Africa. In 2015, trastuzumab was the second highest driver of expenditure on a medicine in South Africa’s private sector. During the same year, Roche earned more than US$ 8.9 billion in profits globally.
The excessive income and profits generated by the sale of trastuzumab reflect pharmaceutical companies’ common practice of price hikes in order to maximize their profits – at the expense of patients’ access to the medicines they need.
Recently academics in the UK estimated that a full 12-month course of trastuzumab can be produced and sold for as little as R3,300 (US$245) – a mere fraction of prices charged by Roche in South Africa and elsewhere. This low figure includes a 50% mark-up on the cost of production for profit and is similar to estimates for producing trastuzumab provided confidentially from a competitor company in 2013. Multiple patents granted on trastuzumab combined with the slow market entry and registration of biosimilar[iii] products globally allowed Roche to charge exorbitant prices for the life-saving treatment for far too long.
Recognising the injustice faced by herself and others who are unable to access trastuzumab while Roche reaps massive profits, Tobeka threw herself into advocating for equitable medicine access for all during 2016. In February, she was featured in a short video in which she noted: “if I can get [trastuzumab] treatment, it will give me a chance to see my two sons and my grandson growing”. Even as the likelihood of her being able to access trastuzumab diminished, Tobeka’s determination to ensure other women could access the medicine only grew stronger.
Tobeka went on to lead several demonstrations calling on Roche to drop the price of trastuzumab and gave testimony regarding her inability to access trastuzumab treatment in front of the United Nation’s High Level Panel on Access to Medicines .
Finally, less than 2 months before her death, Tobeka led a march calling on the South African government to end delays in reforming South Africa’s patent laws to improve medicine access.
On World Cancer Day 2017, the Fix the Patent Laws coalition will rename its campaign the Tobeka Daki Campaign for Access to Trastuzumab – to remember Tobeka, to recognise her inspirational leadership and to pledge ourselves to continue her struggle for access to affordable medicines.
Starting in February, activists across the world will highlight the excessive price of trastuzumab and Roche’s unconscionable profits as women continue to die as a direct result of their prices. We will demand access for every woman who needs it.
The campaign will call on Roche to drop the price of trastuzumab so that all women living with HER2+ breast cancer who need it can access it; to immediately cease all litigation against biosimilar versions of trastuzumab; to stop abusive patenting practices that needlessly extend their patent monopoly on trastuzumab; and to immediately cease litigation against the Brazilian and Argentinian governments for their use of TRIPS flexibilities in order to decrease the price of the medicine. .
To follow the campaign in South Africa, visit @FixPatentLaw or www.fixthepatentlaws.org, and follow the hashtags: #ForTobeka
[i]Approximately 1 in 5 women diagnosed with breast cancer are HER2 positive – meaning that the human epidermal growth factor receptor (HER2) is over expressed in the breast cancer tumor. HER2 over expression is associated with more aggressive disease, higher rates of recurrence and higher mortality rates than HER2 negative tumors.
[ii]Except in very limited circumstances. See more at: http://www.fixthepatentlaws.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/11/Cancer-Alliance-motivation-for-the-provision-of-trastuzumab-in-the-public-sector-November-2016-2.pdf
[iii]Follow-on versions of biologic medicines- usually produced by companies other than the originator producing company. As biological medicines are produced from living organisms, biosimilar medicines are not exactly identical to biologic medicines but are comparable in terms of safety and efficacy.