April 26, 2013

Novartis was just denied a patent for Gleevec, a cancer drug, in India. This wasn't because they doubt the efficacy of the drug. It was to protect their right to manufacture generic versions.

India’s Supreme Court has rejected a bid from Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis AG to patent an updated version of its cancer drug Gleevec (known as Glivec in Europe).

Patents allow companies to block competitors from making and selling the same product. The ruling means that Novartis can’t stop drug makers in India from manufacturing generic versions of Gleevec, which cost much less than the original.

This is not an unusual occurrence these days. Worldwide, oncologists and medical professionals are pressuring Big Pharma to drop their prices on cancer treatment drugs.

“Advocating for lower drug prices is a necessity to save the lives of patients who cannot afford them,” the physicians write in Blood, the journal of the American Society of Hematology. Since many specialize in chronic myeloid leukemia, which is a deadly blood cancer, they cited Gleevec, a best-selling medication marketed by Novartis.

In fact, one of the doctors who signed the commentary is Brian Druker, who was the lead academic developer of the drug and is now director of the Knight Cancer Institute at Oregon Health and Science University. “If you are making $3 billion a year on Gleevec, could you get by with $2 billion?” he tells The New York Times. “When do you cross the line from essential profits to profiteering?”

For its part, Novartis counters that Gleevec is provided at no charge to 5,000 uninsured or underinsured Americans each year and, so far, some 50,000 people in poor nations have received the drug for free. But for those who must absorb the cost, the drugmaker maintains there is good value – Gleevec can turn a deadly disease into a chronic condition.

Yeah, baloney on the "good value" claim. Drug prices are way too high and have been for years. Look at the chart on Novartis' own page of how profits have climbed and indeed, even spiked over the past five years. The same holds true for Pfizer. Lookie here at Roche's profits, up 5.1 percent, from handsome profits on Tamiflu and new breast cancer treatments. That flu epidemic was a boon!

Dr. Druker's question is one they won't answer. Instead, they will fall back on their fiduciary duty to protect investors in order to justify their outrageous price models. In the end, it will be the doctors who press forward because:

The frustration and concern expressed by these physicians reflect a rising, but simple concern that patients should be placed ahead of profits. Insurers may want to avoid negative publicity and will pay for orphan drugs, assuming patient populations remain small. But as price tags rise across the board for a wider array of drugs, fewer patients can be expected to afford treatment.

Perhaps it's time for Congress to press for negotiated drug prices, hmmmm?

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