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Roche holds the patent on herceptin, which costs about R500,000 for a year’s course in the private sector. Its high price means many medical schemes do not pay for it, or will pay only for a limited course.
It is generally not available for public sector patients.
Herceptin is used in conjunction with other therapies for a particularly aggressive form of the disease known as HER2 breast cancer. This form of cancer affects between 20% and 30% of women with the disease.
“We are at an advanced stage of finalising discussions with the South African Department of Health to improve equitable access to herceptin in the public sector. We are also committed to working with payers to develop pricing models in the private sector,” said Aadila Fakier, head of public policy communications for Roche in SA.
She confirmed that Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi had met Roche’s CEO Severin Schwan in Davos in January, which the minister alluded to in a briefing shortly after delivering his budget speech yesterday. Dr Motsoaledi used the platform to attack multinational pharmaceutical companies for their “devilishly expensive” drugs, drawing attention to the cost of medicines for treating cancer and drug-resistant tuberculosis. A year’s treatment for metastatic melanoma would cost R960,000; while that for drug-resistant TB would cost between R204,000 and R832,000 a year, he said.
These prices put the drugs out of the reach of most South Africans, he said.
“If no drastic action is taken today, we are going to be counting body bags like we are at war,” Dr Motsoaledi told MPs.
“Two years ago, I was regarded as exaggerating, or outright insane, when I spoke openly against pharmaceutical companies that were planning a price onslaught. Today, that onslaught is among us. We have no option, but to call for HIV/AIDS-like solidarity of all the progressive forces to force significant decreases in the price of these medicines,” he said, referring to the global campaign by civil society, activists, the United Nations and governments to bring down the price of AIDS drugs in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
The minister said the health department had recent successes in negotiating with drug firms. It had persuaded GlaxoSmithKline to drop the price of its human papilloma virus (HPV) vaccine, so that it could afford to provide it on a mass scale to school girls. The HPV vaccine protects girls against cervical cancer.
The Treatment Action Campaign’s (TAC) head of policy Marcus Low supported the minister’s attempts to get Roche to drop the price of herceptin.
“It is unacceptable that women with this specific type of breast cancer can’t access herceptin, or go bankrupt in the process. We welcome the minister taking this strong moral stance,” he said.
TAC and cancer medicine lobby groups protested outside Roche’s Joburg office last month, drawing attention to the fact that Roche’s patent on herceptin only expires in SA in 2033, almost a decade after expiring in the US. This potentially meant US patients would get cheap generic copies of herceptin before local patients did, it said at the time.
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