Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS
Picture: RUSSELL ROBERTS

The Competition Commission is investigating Pfizer for charging excessive prices for a lung cancer drug that is not registered for sale in SA.

On Tuesday‚ the commission stated it was investigating three pharmaceutical companies for “excessive prices” for cancer drugs.

But the commission made several mistakes‚ including getting the name of Pfizer’s drug wrong.

The commission did not note that all drug prices are approved and signed off by the medicines pricing committee within the Department of Health. The commission also said it had information that gives “rise to reasonable suspicion that Pfizer has and continues to engage in excessive pricing conduct in provision of crizotinib”. Pfizer confirmed that crizotinib is not registered in SA.

An unregistered drug cannot be sold in the country and will not have a price. The commission complained about its R152‚000 price saying it was in possession of information that this treatment was “unaffordable”. Pfizer denied this price.

Wits oncology professor Paul Ruff explained that a handful of patients accessed this drug using a special Section 21 permit to buy it overseas and import it, because it is not available here. Medicines only get a set price after they are registered in the country‚ he said‚ so crizotinib has no local price or supplier.

The European Commission is investigating Aspen for a 1‚500% increase for a 50-year-old leukaemia drug in the UK and a 4‚000% increase in Spain. On Tuesday, the commission said it would also investigate Aspen saying it was in “possession of information that Aspen had engaged in the same conduct locally”.

However‚ it failed again to note all price increases for all drugs are set annually by the Department of Health.

Aspen confirmed that the drugs under investigation have increased, on average, 6.25% a year since 2009 when Aspen bought the drug portfolio from GSK. The commission said Aspen’s drug prices may be “excessive”. The drug used for leukaemia‚ Leukeran‚ costs between R2‚800 and R4‚800 a month per patient.

Myleran‚ used for a blood cancer‚ costs an average of R2‚086 a month but the dose and price will drop after a few months if the cancer goes into remission‚ said Aspen’s spokesman Stavros Nicolaou.

The commission also took issue with Roche’s cancer drug which costs R500‚000 in the private sector for a year’s course. The commission said people couldn’t access the drugs and charged Roche with “exclusionary conduct”. But this drug is to be provided to state patients at one of the lowest prices in the world within months‚ two sources close to the Roche and Department of Health negotiations said.

Roche said recently it believed a deal with the department on supplying this drug to state patients was “about to be finalised” saying negotiations were “advanced”.

Two sources also confirmed that the commission didn’t even call the Department of Health to get its views on the matter or check the commission’s facts. All three pharmaceutical companies learned of the investigations through the media statement.

The commission also charged Roche with “price discrimination” because it has a state price and a private-sector price for cancer drug Herceptin. However‚ the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act allows the prices for medicines for state patients and private patients to differ and‚ in fact‚ a high private price is used to subsidise very low state prices for nearly all medicines in the country‚ two industry sources confirmed.

The commission did not respond to requests for clarification.

In a Sens statement on Tuesday, Aspen said all the drugs under investigation for excessive pricing sell for less than R3m a year combined.

Competition Commission spokesman Sipho Ngwema said the commission knew the Pfizer drug was not sold here but it would investigate Pfizer nonetheless.

Ngwema said: "Whilst we accept that the drug is not registered in SA, however, the conduct has an effect in the country as there are patients who use the drug here. These patients are subjected to very high pricing. Further, our investigation will in any event probe why it is not registered here."

Asked about the fact drug prices and yearly increases are set by government he said: "Even though there is single exit price [set by government], this neither means prices cannot be excessive nor is the process beyond scrutiny. There are drugs that have been investigated in other country for excessive prices that Aspen supplies to SA."

He also said the competition commission had "a sufficient basis to start an investigation".

"Part of our probe will look into patent laws and their effect on entry [of generic products]."

Please login or register to comment.