Are Big Pharma holding patients to ransom to boost their profits?


23 June 2017

The NHS has been forced into yet another secretive deal with a big pharmaceutical company to ensure access for cancer patients to the newest medicines. But while access to new drugs is obviously good news for cancer patients, the deal itself paints a bleak picture for the future of our NHS.

At the end of last year, the NHS was forced to reject a powerful new breast cancer drug, Kadcyla, on the grounds that it was too expensive. Swiss drug maker Roche was demanding £90,000 per patient for a drug that could give women with the aggressive HER2 type of breast cancer a priceless nine extra months to live. Finally last week, after months of campaigning from cancer organisations, the NHS struck a deal with Roche to make Kadcyla available to patients in England, though the final cost is unknown to the public.

Clearly the NHS approving Kadcyla is great news for the hundreds of people who desperately need this drug. But the price row is also a worrying development for the NHS, which is already struggling to afford increasingly expensive medicines. Last year, the NHS had to spend a whopping £3.8 billion more on medicines than it did five years ago (a rise of 29%), even as pharmaceutical companies cemented their position as the world’s most profitable industry. In 2015, 80% of the growth in profits for the 20 largest drug companies came from price increases. One of the root causes of this spiralling budget is international patent laws, whereby companies get years of monopoly rights to supply new medicines. That means companies can effectively hold patients to ransom in order to squeeze as much money as possible out of health services here in the UK and abroad.

The price negotiations between Roche and the NHS happened in secret, so we don’t know how much we’re paying for Kadcyla now. Big pharmaceutical companies usually try to legitimise their high prices by citing the high costs of research and development, but they won’t tell us the cost of that either. This complete lack of transparency means that we’re asked to blindly believe that the price asked by a company which made US$8.9 billion profit in 2015 is fair. It also means that we have no idea how much other countries are paying for the same drug.

Could what we see here be a glimpse of a strategy from big companies of demanding extortionate prices from health services in the hope that they will pay up, and then entering into secret negotiations to get as high a price as possible while patients are left without the treatment they need? That’s a game in which patients and the NHS will always lose.

Cancer patients deserve access to the medicines they need. But with rising drug prices, we’re only going to see more of these cases of essential medicines being rejected or restricted due to cost concerns. Without the ability to scrutinise drug cost, we don’t stand a chance against big pharmaceutical companies draining our NHS budgets in order to maximise their profits.


Photo: Fix the Patent Laws activists in South Africa protest against Roche, April 2016. Credit: Act Up

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