Stephen Saad. Picture: ASPEN
Stephen Saad. Picture: ASPEN

Stephen Saad’s frustration at Aspen being branded a "price gouger" that drove up the cost of life-saving medicine for profit is palpable. In an interview with the Financial Mail, the 53-year-old says Aspen Pharmacare has been the victim of a "perfect storm" that has led to his company being unfairly cast as a villain.

Saad has had perhaps his toughest two months since he and Gus Attridge founded Aspen 20 years ago in a small house in Greyville, Durban, and became the dazzling success story of SA entrepreneurship in the new millennium.

In April, accusations of price gouging in Europe rocked Aspen, as The Times of London splashed the story "drug giant’s secret plan to destroy cancer medicine" across its pages. The Times said the cost of busulfan, used by leukaemia patients, spiked from £5.20 to £65.22 in 2013, while chlorambucil, a chemotherapy medication, rose from £8.36 to £40.51 a pack.

Then, last week, the competition commission of SA decided to launch its own probe into three oncology drugs, which Aspen bought in 2009 from pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline (GSK).

But Saad is adamant Aspen has done nothing wrong.

All the drama has weighed on Aspen’s share price, which is down 1.3% since the revelations first broke — a loss of R1.7bn in market value — and compounding its slide over the past year, down 22.9%.

But the reality is that it’s not just the past couple of months that have been rocky. The stock has been on a steady decline ever since GSK — once regarded by some in the market as a potential suitor for the whole of Aspen — began selling its 19% stake in the company from 2015. With hindsight, GSK got a good price, cashing in its last 6.2% tranche at R300/share in a slightly discounted bookbuild.

"Price fixing" scandal aside, has Aspen lost its mojo?

This is a peek into Financial Mail's in-depth cover story on Aspen's competition battle.

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