Drug firms’ money game overlooks cancer victims
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.