Cancer patient. Picture: REUTERS/JIM BOURG
Cancer patient. Picture: REUTERS/JIM BOURG

The Department of Health was hoping to finalise its negotiations with Swiss pharmaceutical firm Roche to cut the price of its breast-cancer drug Herceptin by November 2017, with a view to enrolling the first patients in January 2018, a senior official told Business Day on Sunday.

Concluding these talks is essential for delivering on the promises made in the government’s new breast cancer strategy, which for the first time recommends that eligible patients receive trastuzumab, the active ingredient in Herceptin.

The strategy, published on Friday, says trastuzumab should be provided to patients with HER2 tumours at three weekly intervals for a year. But it contains a caveat, saying it must be affordable and not come at the expense of cutting other healthcare services.

"The key issue is funding. We will not be paying what the private sector pays," said the department’s deputy director-general for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and maternal and child health Yogan Pillay.

The Fix the Patent Laws Coalition estimates that a year’s treatment with Herceptin costs R465,392 per patient in the private sector. The high price tag means many medical schemes will not pay for it.

The provision of trastuzumab in the state sector thus has implications for private sector patients as it will put pressure on medical schemes that do not pay for the drug to demonstrate why they cannot afford it, said Board of Healthcare Funders head of benefit and risk Rajesh Patel.

Pillay said the department was negotiating with other pharmaceutical manufactures to lower their prices to help offset the cost of trastuzumab.

Generic drug manufacturer Mylan had applied to the Medicines Control Council to register its trastuzumab biosimilar, but it had yet to be approved, Pillay said.

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