Picture: TMG
Picture: TMG

The Department of Health has reached an agreement with Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche on the price of its breast-cancer drug trastuzumab, better known by its brand name of Herceptin, and has begun providing the drug to state patients, a senior official said on Tuesday. 

The development has implications for patients in both the public and private sector, as it will put pressure on medical schemes that do not currently pay for trastuzumab to show why they cannot afford it.

The government’s new cancer policy, published last year, recommends trastuzumab for state patients for the first time. It is used in patients with HER2 tumours.

Roche is the sole provider of trastuzumab in SA, which it sells as both an originator and a clone product, branded Herceptin and Herclon respectively. The lack of competition means the health department is paying more than it would like for the drug, putting pressure on already stretched provincial health budgets, said Yogan Pillay, the Health Departments’ deputy director general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis, and maternal and child health.

He declined to disclose the public-sector price, but did not dispute the figures contained in a report published by the Cancer Alliance last year, which put Roche’s clone product, Herclon, at R10,596 per 440mg vial or R211,920 for a full treatment course. This is about half the private-sector price, according to the report.

Pillay said generic pharmaceutical manufacturer Mylan had submitted a dossier for its bio-similar trastuzumab to the Medicines Control Council, but it had yet to be approved. Mylan had indicated that its price would not be significantly lower than Herceptin until it ramped up volumes, said Pillay.

At present only about half a dozen public hospitals were enrolling patients on trastuzumab, but the figure is expected to rise, he said.

On Monday, the Cancer Alliance called on the government to reform its intellectual property regime for medicines, saying the current system inhibits competition and keeps drug prices at unaffordable levels. Changes to SA’s intellectual property policy could make medicine prices fall by as much as 90%, it said.

"Thousands of cancer patients in SA are dying because they cannot afford medicines that are available in other countries at a fraction of the price. These patients are not getting the treatment they need because our government routinely grants patents that could be challenged and rejected," the Cancer Alliance said in a statement.

The Cancer Alliance is an association of 26 advocacy groups and non-profit organisations, and has stepped up its campaign to improve patient’s access to life-saving medicines to coincide with World Cancer Day on February 4.

Said the Cancer Alliance: "SA’s patent system is geared towards monopoly holders and is at odds with government’s constitutional obligation to take reasonable legislative steps to protect and promote the right to health of people living in SA."