Monday, August 11, 2008

Rising Drug Prices - The Real Devil in the Detail

Decisions not to supply certain drugs on national health schemes may be an inevitable consequence of a wider problem of rising prices for a growing number of patented medicines. The recent NICE preliminary decision to advise the UK National Health Service (NHS) against several high-priced treatments for advanced renal cell carcinoma was largely attributed to the high cost of these medicines.

In an article last week in USA Today it is suggested that a small number of prescription brand-name medicines in the US, still protected by patents, are being raised in price by 100-1000%. Overall, price rises last year were around 7.4% on average for brand-name drugs in the US.

While patents potentially preserve prices against oversight by conventional competition, pressure is coming from elsewhere. In December 2003, Abbott Laboratories Inc raised the price of the HIV/AIDS drug, Norvir (ritonavir), by just over 400% (from USD205.74 to USD 1028.71 for 120 capsules). In May of 2004, the US-based civil society coalition, Prescription Access Litigation (PAL) filed a class action lawsuit in Illinois state court against Abbott and in October 2004 filed a federal class action suit in the US District Court in California.

Only last week did Abbott agree to settle the lawsuit (the decision awaits approval and the final amount will depend upon the decisions of the 9th US Circuit Court of Appeals regarding the antitrust questions in the case).

But Abbott faces potentially larger damages in the lawsuit filed in October 2007 by pharmacies and wholesalers, and joined by competitor GSK. The case goes before the US District Court Judge Claudia Wilken next week.

The problem is a kind of pharmaceutical BlackBerry issue. Norvir, which received FDA approval in 1996, is a Protease Inhibitor (PI) and is an essential component in highly active anti-retroviral treatment (HAART) used to treat HIV/AIDS. Although initially marketed as a standalone PI, Norvir subsequently became more commonly used in low doses as a booster in HAART.

Abbott then introduced Kaletra around 4 years later as a fixed-dosed combination product and the only such product to include Norvir/ritonavir. The wholesale price of Norvir was then raised in 2003, but not that of Kaletra (despite containing ritonavir). Raising the price of Norvir effectively raised the price required to access the 8 out of 9 competitors' drugs that rely upon Norvir as the booster in HAART. Kaletra thus became a cheaper alternative, but not necessarily a medically-appropriate one for all candidates. The Kaletra patent does not expire until 2016.

According to reports in the San Jose Mercury News, San Franciso, internal memos at the time warned that if the price of Norvir was raised, Abbott would come off as the "big, bad, greedy pharmaceutical company."

As much as I wouldn't want to give up my BlackBerry, it seems the Norvir stranglehold puts quite a bit more at stake.

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