Photo: Drug Treatment.com
As kids, we would all cry and fight off our parents when they attempted to spoon feed us the generic grape flavored menace that was going to cure our common cold or our ear infections. But there are some children that can swallow horse pills from the day they turn three. These children are the chronically ill, and they skipped the grape phase because the drugs they require are ten times stronger than most. These drugs are also ten times more expensive. There is a private war being fought between patients and the manufacturers of pharmaceutical drugs. These drugs are extremely expensive to produce, and extremely expensive to purchase. Patients are advocating for more affordable care, but these drug companies wouldn’t have the money to continue their research if they cut their prices.
These drugs are critical to patient survival. The pharmaceutical company Vertex has created a drug called Orkambi to help treat the underlying cause of Cystic Fibrosis, a rare genetic disease that causes a thickening of mucus in the lungs and is life threatening. This drug, Orkambi, has made colossal improvements in patient lung function. "The year following the release of Kaleydeco (Kaleydaco is part of the orkambi drug) in 2013 the CF Foundation patient registry report noted that the median age of survival of someone with CF had increased to 40.7 years, a gain of 11.7 years since 1993." This is an indisputably incredible improvement. Vertex has priced this life saver, and that price is $289,000 a year. That’s higher than the price of most 4 year universities.
Another such drug goes by the name Soliris and is made by the company Alexion pharmaceuticals. It's used to treat PNH, Paroxysmal nocturnal hemoglobinuria. Like Cystic Fibrosis this disease is rare, so a smaller portion of the federal budget goes into its research. This disease can be dangerous if left untreated, but by taking Soliris patients can lead a normal life. Unfortunately for PNH patients this drug often goes by another name, "the world's most expensive drug". Its cost? Over half a million dollars per year. Soliris is the most important drug made to treat this disease because it only affects 8,000 people in the U.S, so other treatments are not an option. Without it, patients will lose their life. Many lower class families can't afford these lifesaving drugs. Doctors are expressing frustration watching the patients they know suffer just because they can't afford the best care. "To see a price like this was a kick in the gut. It was really hard to take. I knew it would be an expensive drug. I thought it was going to be 10,000 dollars a year, not 300,000 dollars a year." says Dr. Brian o' Sullivan.
Soliris can cost upwards of a half million dollars
On the other side, drug companies argue that it’s extremely expensive to research and develop these medications, and it is. Drug production is a complicated process beginning with basic research, then a drug discovery and pre clinical phase. Then begin the clinical trials, which typically have 3 phases. Then the drug is sent for FDA approval. The average cost of going through this process to develop a successful drug is 2.6 billion dollars. Although pharmaceutical companies mission is saintly, they still must make a profit to sustain this research. Once a company receives a patent for a drug they effectively have a short term monopoly on it, and are able to choose whatever price they want and have no reason to drive it down because they are not faced with competition. An example of this is the drug Zaltrap, which is used in chemotherapy treatments. It costs 11,000$ a month. Researchers found that this drug only costs about $5,000 to produce, so the company that produces it is profiting $6,000 per sale. These companies often need the profits from successful drugs to finance the research and development of drugs still in the works. It is often hard to swallow the markup of prescription prices but these profit margins are necessary to fuel the pharmaceutical machine that discovered the drug in the first place.
It’s often forgotten, but the production of medications is first and foremost a business operation. Various companies must compete with each other to stay open and make a profit. “Competition policy aims to make markets work for consumers through its core elements: enforcement and advocacy”. By promoting their own products, companies are subsequently raising awareness for the diseases that they are attempting to cure, helping patients. The competition aspect has also caused some drug costs to be driven down, such as the case with Lorazepam in 2000. The Federal Trade Commission charged generic drug makers with restraint of trade. The defendant placed $100 million in to an account to be distributed to people purchasing their drug (unctad.org). In this case, the capitalist nature of the pharmaceutical industry actually helped their consumers.
This war is far from over. As science is advancing, this problem is only going to increase, and there is no simple solution. On one hand, the world wants to help as many people as it can, but on the other, money isn’t going away and it’s a necessity to make products. The next time you see someone complaining about taking grape flavored liquid, remind them to be thankful for it.