Competition Commission to probe prices of big pharma cancer drugs

The Competition Commission is investigating three large pharmaceutical companies for the “excessive pricing” of cancer medicines.

Image: Gallo Images/Thinkstock

The move echoes the manner in which the commission took on Aids drug manufacturers to allow the sale of cheaper generic antiretrovirals.

At the centre of the investigation is Roche’s controversial drug Trastuzumab‚ better known by brand name Herceptin‚ which costs between R500‚000 to R550‚000 per patient in the private sector for a 12-month treatment.

A one-year course prevents an aggressive and deadly form of breast cancer returning in about four out of ten patients.

But the state price is R211‚900 in pilot projects.

“Information in the possession of the Commission confirms that breast cancer treatment is unaffordable in South Africa and many medical aid schemes refuse to pay the treatment based on cost.

“On this basis‚ the Commission has reasonable grounds to suspect that Roche and Genentech  (its USA-based biotechnology company) may be charging excessive prices for breast cancer medicines‚ including Herceptin and Herclon‚ to the detriment of consumers and in contravention of the Competition Act‚” the commission said.

The Commission has taken issue with the large difference in pricing in the private and public sector.

The Medicines Act does allow for differences in pricing in the private and government sector.

The private sector price is known to subsidise the state price.

The huge difference in price for Herceptin showed the private price was “significantly inflated” however‚ market access scientist Joao Carapinha said recently.

Roche is also being investigated for “exclusionary behaviour” and allegedly trying to stop competition in South Africa.

Its patent in Hercpetin ends in 2020 but it has tried to extend the patent to 2033‚ a move that would block competition for another 16 years.

The patent has ended in Europe and will end in the USA in 2019‚ meaning competitive products are already being developed. Commenting on the investigation Roche said it has “not received a formal notification by the Competition Commission”.

“In case we receive a formal notification‚ we will be cooperating fully with the authorities‚ will provide all required information and will respond to the allegations‚” the company said. The commission also plans to investigate Pfizer’s lung cancer drug‚ Xalkori Crizotinib‚ which costs R152‚000 per dose.

“Pfizer denies that it supplies the lung cancer product at the alleged price of R152‚000. We await the opportunity to be contacted by the Commission to clarify the pricing for this product‚” the company said.

The commission is also investigating whether Aspen is charging excessive prices for leukaemia drugs.

Since last month Aspen has been under investigation by the European Commission for increasing the price of a cancer drug in Spain by 4‚000%. Aspen is the only manufacturer of five very old cancer drugs for blood‚ bone marrow and ovarian cancers and in recent years increased their prices in Europe between 1‚500% and 4‚000% .

The was the first increase in 50 years.

BY KATHARINE CHILD – TimesLIVE

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