Drug firms’ money game over­looks cancer vic­tims

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - FRONT PAGE - SHEREE BEGA

A TO­TAL of 453km, that’s how far Claudette Moore will have to drive to pro­long her life if her rare, ag­gres­sive form of breast cancer re­turns.

The only pub­lic hos­pi­tal in South Africa that pro­vides the cancer-fight­ing drug Moore needs is in the North­ern Cape: Kim­ber­ley Hos­pi­tal. And the 46-year-old, who is HER2-pos­i­tive and pos­i­tive for es­tro­gen re­cep­tors and pro­ges­terone re­cep­tors, lives in the Vaal Tri­an­gle. She can­not af­ford the hun­dreds of thou­sands it costs to ob­tain the ex­pen­sive med­i­ca­tion.

This week, the Com­pe­ti­tion Com­mis­sion an­nounced it has launched a wide- rang­ing probe into Swiss phar­ma­ceu­ti­cal gi­ant Roche and its US- based biotech­nol­ogy com­pany, Ge­nen­tech, for “ex­ces­sive pric­ing, price dis­crim­i­na­tion and/or ex­clu­sion­ary con­duct in the pro­vi­sion of breast cancer medicine in SA”.

Breast cancer treat­ment is un­af­ford­able in SA and many med­i­cal aid schemes refuse to pay the treat­ment based on cost, says the com­mis­sion.

“The price of Her­ceptin is R500 000 for a 12-month cy­cle of treat­ment in the pri­vate sec­tor,” says Salome Meyer, of the Cancer Al­liance. “In the pub­lic sec­tor it’s R212 000 and an of­fer is on the ta­ble for R125 000. One has to ask why the price dif­fer­ence… Who is ben­e­fit­ing? Cer­tainly not the pa­tients.”

Only Roche’s branded ver­sions of Tras­tuzumab, sold lo­cally as Her­ceptin and Her­clon, are avail­able. The World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion rec­om­mends it as an es­sen­tial medicine.

“What Roche is do­ing is a game of money,” said Moore. “It’s dis­gust­ing that they watch peo­ple die so they can get rich.”

At Char­lotte Max­eke Jo­han­nes­burg Aca­demic Hos­pi­tal, Moore was put onto a chemo­ther­apy agent called Red Devil be­cause of its ag­gres­sive method. For the next 10 years, she will be on hor­mone ther­apy. “I’m a 46-year-old with full-blown menopause and I can’t work. If I had Her­ceptin maybe I wouldn’t need all this med­i­ca­tion. My odds would have been much bet­ter be­cause it fights the rare, fast-grow­ing cancer I have.”

Breast cancer is the lead­ing form of cancer af­fect­ing women in South Africa. Ntokozo Dlula, a se­nior coun­sel­lor at He­len Joseph Hos­pi­tal, deals with pa­tients who are HER2-pos­i­tive but can­not get treat­ment be­cause of the un­avail­abil­ity of the drug. “Even if they get Red Devil, they know it doesn’t work as well as Her­ceptin. It’s hard,” she says.

Breast cancer pa­tients in both the pri­vate and pub­lic sec­tors are un­able to get treat­ment, says the com­mis­sion. Roche has a com­po­si­tion patent for its Tras­tuzumab prod­uct, Her­ceptin, in South Africa which ex­pires in 2020. Ge­nen­tech, which pro­vides ex­clu­sive mar­ket­ing rights to Roche for it, also holds a patent cov­er­ing com­bi­na­tions of the drug and other chemother­a­peu­tic agents which could block pre-clin­i­cal work on a biosim­i­lar prod­uct un­til 2033.

The com­mis­sion is also prob­ing Pfizer for sus­pected ex­ces­sive pric­ing of lung cancer med­i­ca­tion and Aspen Phar­ma­care Hold­ings for sus­pected abuse of dom­i­nance by charg­ing ex­ces­sive prices for med­i­ca­tion to treat chronic lym­pho­cytic leukemia, Hodgkin lym­phoma, and non-Hodgkin lym­phoma.

In Fe­bru­ary, Roche said it was fully com­mit­ted to reach­ing a so­lu­tion.

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