We Save Lives While Our Critics Complain

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In his first press conference as president-elect, Donald Trump insisted pharma was “getting away with murder” due to expensive drug prices.

Others agree, even without the hyperbole. California Gov. Jerry Brown showed his disdain by signing legislation forcing drug manufacturers to justify their need for price increases, just like oil companies, internet providers, and grocery stores.

Recently, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) piled on by running an article arguing cancer drugs generate sales roughly 10 times their development costs.

See also: Gottlieb Eyes Prices, Not Lives

The authors reached this conclusion by considering only 15% of approved cancer drugs, then underestimating their development costs by a factor of three. They didn't bother including the hundreds of millions of dollars companies lose every year on molecules that never make it to market. Check out Peter Pitts' devastating analysis of this absurd study in the October 9 edition of The Wall Street Journal.

Fortunately, not everyone thinks we're in business just to make a “killing.” Every year, Fortune lists the top 50 companies doing the most to change the world for the better. President Trump, Gov. Brown, and the JAMA editors might have been surprised by the No. 1 company on the 2016 list.

It was GlaxoSmithKline, which, along with Gilead Sciences at No. 4 and Johnson & Johnson at No. 31, is helping save millions of lives in Africa by not only supplying HIV drugs at extremely low costs, but also by permitting local companies to develop their own generic equivalents of their patented HIV drugs.

See also: Who's Getting Rich in Healthcare?

HIV is only part of Africa's public health crisis. According to the World Health Organization, cancer claims 450,000 African lives a year. The toll is expected to double by 2030.

Especially sad is the fact that most cancers in Africa — breast, cervical, and prostate — are highly treatable.

Roughly 90% of women in the U.S. live at least five years after a breast cancer diagnosis. In Uganda, the rate is 46%, and in Gambia, only one in 12 live that long.

See also: AI Drug Design Could Save Lives

In a recent agreement, Pfizer and Cipla, an Indian pharma company that's No. 46 on Fortune's Change the World list, will make 16 standard cancer drugs available at deep discounts to some of Africa's poorest countries that account for nearly half of all cancer cases in Sub-Saharan Africa. Medicines U.S. patients benefit from will soon be available in Africa for a few dollars or even pennies a day.

The reason why pharma manufacturers are able to make this kind of impact appears to be lost on our critics.

It's simple. Before we can create hope for patients with once-hopeless cancers such as malignant melanoma, we must first discover and market the treatment. And before we can later discount these medications or license our patents, we must be allowed to recover our development costs.

See also: How Do Docs Learn About New Drugs? TV, Of Course

Consider Gilead's launch of Yescarta, a personalized therapy that harnesses an individual's immune system to fight lymphoma. With an estimated price close to $400,000, I can already hear the howls of anguish. Remember Sovaldi?

But guess what? As we continue to develop personalized therapy, Yescarta costs will drop, other treatments will appear, and the defeat of cancer will draw closer.

Anyone who says pharma is “getting away with murder” should consider the millions of lives we've saved in the past and the millions more we'll save tomorrow. And then shut up.

Sander Flaum is a principal at Flaum Navigators. 

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