Why I disagree with Pfizer
Just Treatment patient leader
By Simon Brasch, Just Treatment patient leader.
I lived with a life-threatening condition for many years while waiting for my liver to get damaged enough that I was eligible for life-saving treatment on the NHS. So I have a specific interest in finding out why life-changing medicine prices are set so high by pharmaceutical companies that our health service cannot afford them.
Over those years I waited for treatment it was hard to comprehend how a drug that existed and could stop ongoing damage to my liver and the potential shortening of my life was not available to me. And it angered me that this situation was largely due to pricing policies set by pharmaceutical companies that were, and continue to be, entirely lacking in transparency.
It is through this lens which I read the recent letter from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer in response to a meeting between Pfizer and Just Treatment patients and staff about their pricing policy for the breast cancer drug palbociclib.
To be very clear, palbociclib can enable breast cancer patients to live longer and in better health, and yet it was not available on the NHS until after we campaigned to get Pfizer to lower the price. My fellow patient Emma who has incurable cancer is on palbociclib and it transformed her life.
Emma’s experience showed that the potential impact on the lives of patients was without question. Yet the cost set by the manufacturer, Pfizer, prevented it being made available to the people who needed it and the people who it was developed for.
I read Pfizer’s response to Emma’s questions around pricing policies and many questions remain unanswered. Firstly they stated that it costs over $1.5 billion to bring a medicine to market. This is part of their rationale for the high, and often unaffordable, cost of drugs such as palbociclib. Yet this figure has been widely discredited through research and drug development experience of organisations such as the Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative, which can bring a drug to the market for under €150m. We could have much better access at much lower prices if the prioritisation was on access and availability rather than profit alone.
Pfizer state that it took 20 years of research and development before this medicine was approved for use in the US and Europe. But what they fail to mention is that a significant proportion of those 20 years, and indeed the riskiest aspects of the research, were not funded by Pfizer but by us, the tax payer – people like Emma, you and me.
And of course, the aspect of this whole discussion which is the most challenging is where the money goes when we buy these highly priced medicines. Because the fact of the matter is that the amount Pfizer spend buying back their own shares and on marketing is higher than the spend on research and development of new drugs to save and improve lives. Ultimately, whatever is stated, as a patient it feels to me like the company does not have patient’s lives at its heart but profit – with the improvement and extension of patient’s lives as a bi-product rather than the end goal.
In summary, we work, we pay our taxes - which contribute to the research and development of new medicines by pharmaceutical companies - then when we need those medicines, we don’t get them because the pharmaceutical country set prices that are unaffordable for the health system.
Perhaps the way pharmaceutical companies price their medicines is fair and just, but we don’t know because they won’t tell us how they do it. Until pharmaceuticals are transparent about their pricing policies, patients like me, Emma and many of you will wonder where our taxes are going, why the cost of medicines are so high and what comes first – our lives or pharmaceutical company profits?
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