Pharmaceutical Corporations Need to Stop Free-Riding on Publicly Funded Research

CAMBODIA 2017 © Todd Brown

This article was originally published in The Hill

The White House Council of Economic Advisers recently announced a strategy to curb high drug prices: force "free riding" countries abroad to pay more and watch the prices go down in America.

That’s not how it works; lifesaving medicines aren’t more expensive here because they cost less elsewhere. They’re priced out of reach everywhere because pharmaceutical corporations are charging exorbitant prices simply because they can—and the US government lets them.

Pharmaceutical companies have perpetuated a myth that high prices are necessary in order to compensate for the risks and investments they undertake when developing drugs. And governments like the US—the biggest funder of global health research and development (R&D)—have let them.

The White House’s report suggests that it costs an estimated $2.6 billion to develop a new drug today, though they’re basing this on a single, non-transparent pharmaceutical industry-supported study with problematic methodology.

In reality, companies receive substantial publicly funded support from the government. A recent study found that all 210 drugs approved in the US between 2010 and 2016 benefited from publicly funded research, either directly or indirectly.

Taxpayers contribute through public university research, grants, subsidies, and other incentives. This means people are often paying twice for their medicines: through their tax dollars and at the pharmacy.

At Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), we see each and every day the human suffering caused in the places we work and many countries outside the US by treatments being rationed or people being denied essential medical care due to high drug and vaccines prices.

We see babies in Jordan and India who have been forced to go without vaccinations against pneumonia—a disease that kills roughly one million children each year—because governments can’t pay the price tags companies demand.

We hear of doctors in countries like the US and Italy having to choose between patients and rationing hepatitis C medicines to only the sickest because they can’t afford to treat everyone.

Making our patients pay more for their medicines, or imposing restrictions that would make them wait years for cures and innovations available to the rest of the world, won’t bring down drug prices for people in the United States. Making life harder for some of the most vulnerable people in the world will not bring down drug prices in the U.S.

This administration has the power to make a difference in the lives of people struggling to pay their medical bills with meaningful reforms to the US. An R&D system that would benefit us all. If it is serious about bringing down drug prices, the first thing it should do is put access and affordability conditions on the public funding given to medical products in development.

If the public funds the research that led to the development of a certain medicine, there should be limits to what government will allow companies to charge consumers. It should be unacceptable for taxpayers to fund a new medicine that the public can’t even afford to buy once it hits the market.

Early research on one of Swiss pharmaceutical company Novartis's best selling drugs, a cancer drug called Gleevec (imatinib)—a truly life-changing medicine for people with leukemia—was substantially funded by US taxpayers through National Institutes of Health grants and support from the Leukemia Society.

This daily medication is the difference between life and death for so many people, but only if they can afford the $97 per pill for the name-brand version or the at least $49 for the generic option in the US. Additionally, the pharmaceutical industry takes all the credit for developing the breakthrough gene-altering chimeric antigen receptor T-cell (CAR T) therapy—a therapy that can cost patients $475,000—even though the first two CAR T treatments for multiple myeloma came out of NIH-funded research.

The US government should also create better incentives to ensure the development of products that are critical for public health. For example, drug-resistant infections kill 23,000 people each year in the United States and 700,000 people globally, but it has been more than 30 years since a new class of antibiotics has been introduced.

Since antibiotics are given sparingly and for short periods of time, they attract limited interest from companies even though there is an immense need.

It’s time for the US to stop pitting patients against each other and get serious about promoting real innovation and lowering drug prices for everyone. This administration should start by putting an end to pharmaceutical corporations free-riding on publicly funded research.

Jason Cone is the executive director of MSF-USA