Why can’t we access the medicines we need?
By patient leader Julie Strelley-Jones
“The patent system and the introduction of similar competitor molecules, means we only have a relatively short period of time to recoup our investment on a successful medicine” - Pfizer.
This quote from Pfizer featured in a recent reply to Just Treatment after we asked the company to provide information about their pricing of the breast cancer drug palbociclib (Ibrance). We wanted to know why they had priced this drug at 140 times the amount it can be profitably sold for - creating unnecessary delays in access for patients and increasing pressure on the NHS.
After Just Treatment’s campaign, led by my fellow patient activist Emma, Pfizer dropped the price and palbociclib was finally approved for NHS use. However, it is still only available to patients who are on their ‘first line’ of treatment.
As a cancer patient myself, knowing there is a drug out there that can help me but which I am unable to access is soul destroying. The fact that Pfizer and other drug companies are gaining huge profits from these drugs makes me wonder how they can sleep at night as their decisions are sending us to an early grave.
The problem lies with patents. These are protections which are held on a drug for a specific time, allowing the company that created the drug to monopolise it - they are given the sole rights to selling it for 20 years. Once the patent has lapsed, then other companies can bid to create a “generic” form of the drug at a much cheaper price.
In theory, decisions around drug pricing are based on the costs of researching and manufacturing the drug. In reality, these figures are never fully disclosed.
We understand that Pfizer has a limited timeframe to redeem its costs. However, Pfizer is not only redeeming it’s costs but creating a huge profit as a result. For example: Pfizer generated £2.8 billion in sales from the drug palbociclib alone in 2015 and 2016.
This creates a situation where the NHS is unable to fund such expensive drugs and patients are unable to access new treatments which could control their cancer, give them quality time with their families and incur less of the side effects of traditional chemotherapy.
Pfizer reduced the price of palbociclib for patients who are on their first line of treatment after pressure from Just Treatment and we welcome this decision. The reduced price was never disclosed.
But this drug is still not available for patients like myself who have had previous treatment regimes.
I find this situation extremely stressful. I live with incurable inflammatory breast cancer which spread to my liver, lungs, bones and brain. It is extremely hard, knowing there are drugs out there that could extend my life but due to cost and the fact I have had previous drugs they are out of my reach. I have had toxic chemotherapy treatment for years and this revolutionary drug allows patients a good quality of life with limited side effects.
Pfizer states “we need to recoup our investment on the medicine that succeeded whilst delivering enough profit to ensure our business and commitment to research and development remains viable.”
We understand the need to recoup costs but the patent system is allowing drug companies like Pfizer to massively inflate the price of their drugs. A new system needs to be created that moves away from companies holding monopolies over their drugs and demanding extortionate prices.
Drug R&D costs are not as high as the pharmaceutical industry claims (see our previous blog here). Pfizer argue that they can charge these high prices because of these costs - but they are making huge profits at the expense of patients.
You can’t put a price on life, but these inflated prices make it impossible for the NHS to purchase these drugs. Patients are left watching the dangling carrot of new drugs without being able to access them. That’s why we need to challenge companies like Pfizer - at the end of the day they’re putting their profit above patients’ lives, and surely that is not a world that any of us want to live in.