THE PRIME SUSPECTS
Roche, Aspen Pharmacare and Pfizer are under investigation for their respective excesses displayed in pricing their cancer drugs
1Roche: Keeping out generics
The most severe and specific case being made by the Competition Commission is against Swiss multinational Roche around Trastuzumab, a breast cancer drug sold under the names Herceptin and Herclon.
It echoes the allegations made by the Tobeka Daki Campaign for Access to Trastuzumab, launched by Section 27 and other groups in February. The campaign is named in honour of activist Tobeka Daki, who died of breast cancer last year.
This investigation had “multiple trigger points”, said Competition Commission head Tembinkosi Bonakele.
The allegation is that Roche and Genentech, the actual patent owner for which Roche markets the drug, are abusing patent laws to stop generic versions from becoming available, and then charging excessive prices.
Roche would not comment, but in February, the company responded to local campaigners by saying it would “not necessarily” stop so-called biosimilar (generic) versions of the drug being produced.
At the same time, Roche has been slated for its aggressive litigation against generic versions of its drug elsewhere in the world.
2Aspen Pharmacare: Gouging
The allegations against Aspen largely repeat those in an investigation announced three weeks ago by the European Commission, which accuses Aspen of “price gouging” by hiking the prices of niche cancer medicines by several hundred percent after acquiring them from GlaxoSmithKline.
These are off-patent drugs that have very small markets, which has meant that they have garnered little attention from generic competition.
Bonakele said that while the European case influenced the commission, it had been looking into the pharmaceutical companies for a while.
“We have been doing our own stuff for over a year, even before the European Commission raised these issues,” he said.
Aspen responded by saying it had never increased prices beyond what the SEP system permitted.
3Pfizer: Mistaken identity?
The primary allegation against Pfizer may be based on a case of mistaken identity.
The commission said an “agent” for Pfizer charged R152 000 for a 250mg dose of unregistered cancer medication Xalkori Crizotinib.
“When the price was queried, this agent halved the price,” said Bonakele.
This raised a red flag, but the agent in question said it had nothing to do with Pfizer.
Benjamin Miny, managing director of Equity Pharma Holdings, told City Press that his company procured unregistered medicines for patients in South Africa using special import permits under section 21 of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act.
Equity Pharma had imported very small amounts, he said.
Miny said the price of the drug had been dramatically reduced in South Africa because Pfizer had started to supply it in the country itself.
“Since then, we have referred everyone to them.”
Miny defended his company’s pricing, saying the drugs were imported from the EU when the rand was far weaker.
Bonakele said: “There are other grounds for that investigation. The halving of the price is only one of them.”