Novartis prices new cancer drug on ability to pay

Novartis says patients' access to Glivec is a key concern Keystone Archive

The Swiss pharmaceuticals giant, Novartis, has announced that it will make its revolutionary new cancer pill, Glivec, available to Americans regardless of income.

This content was published on May 15, 2001 - 11:39

The offer looks set to re-ignite the controversy over the pricing of drugs and the question of more affordable treatment. The US market is the largest source of profits for the global drugs industry.

About 5,000 people in the United States and about the same number in Europe are diagnosed with chronic myeloid leukaemia each year. Under normal circumstances treatment with Glivec would cost each patient more than $2,000 a month.

Novartis has announced that the treatment will be priced in the US according to ability to pay. Up to 15 per cent of those affected by chronic myeloid leukaemia might be eligible for discounts.

"We recognise the need to assist patients in gaining access to Glivec," said Novartis spokeswoman Marie-Francoise Rütimeyer. "Patients who are in need and may not be able to afford it will be getting access to Glivec very soon."

The move follows intense attacks on pricing in the drugs industry, particularly in the developing world. The pharmaceuticals industry has repeatedly said that price cuts must be avoided in the US, whose consumers contribute most towards the cost of research and development, if the industry is to stay profitable.

Rütimeyer countered criticism that the move was a publicity stunt and would have little impact on profitability. "Novartis is not merely developing drugs which have very high market potential to have a return on our investments in research and development," she said.

"It is also important, and Glivec is the best example, to develop drugs which are real medical breakthroughs. Up to now nothing equivalent has existed and with Glivec we are saving lives."

Dr Zafar Mirza of Health Action International, a network of individuals and organisations, working to promote rational pharmaceutical policies, welcomed the initiative but warned it was not the ultimate solution.

"This kind of deferential pricing is a step in the right direction but it is not a substitute to a more coherent, well-thought-out, long term pricing policy. It is a welcome measure but it is an ad hoc measure and consumers cannot rely on such measures for their long-term treatment needs."

It seems unlikely that the Novartis offer will extend to more routine medicines but Rütimeyer did not rule out the possibility of similar discounts on other life-saving drugs.

"It will depend on the markets and on the indications. There might be several opportunities for how Novartis may approach making breakthrough drugs available to patients."

Novartis hopes that Glivec will be approved in Switzerland by the beginning of July. The company has already indicated that some form of patient-assistance programme is planned for Europe.

by Vincent Landon

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