MS therapy alemtuzumab is named a ‘rip-off’ drug, report

Pharmaceutical companies sell some MS disease modifying therapies (DMTs) at extortionate prices. Big pharma stands accused of setting prices to rip-off the public, and the UK’s National Health Service (NHS). Who’d have thought it? I am shocked (well, no, not really).

One such drug labelled a rip-off, and used to treat multiple sclerosis, is alemtuzumab. It goes by the brand name of Lemtrada.

rip-offA new report has revealed these facts in its findings. Titled Pills and profits – How drug companies make a killing out of public research, it was published by Global Justice Now.

According to MS-UK’s website:

Alemtuzumab was developed at Cambridge University and purchased by Sanofi Genzyme and was originally approved for the treatment of B-cell chronic Lymphocytic Leukaemia. Cambridge scientists discovered it could also be used to treat MS and it was utilised for this non-licensed purpose at a cost of around £2,500 per treatment course in 2012.

rip-offSanofi Genzyme withdrew the drug from the market and re-launched later as an MS medicine at a far higher price per dose. It now costs £56,000 per treatment course, which is a 2140% price increase.

Drugs used for the treatment of cancer, arthritis and MS are among a number of drugs that are costing the NHS billions each year despite a significant amount of money being used to fund the development of such medicines.

The UK government is the second largest funder country, after the US, for research and development (R&D) in diseases that predominantly affect poor countries. The UK government spent £2.3 billion on health R&D in 2015 alone. Globally, it is estimated that the public pays for two-thirds of all upfront drug R&D costs, with around a third of new medicines originating in public research institutions.

Rip-off of public money

The new report highlights the level of UK public money used to develop new drugs, with two out of five of the NHS’s most expensive drugs discovered using substantial public money. It also calls for greater transparency in drug pricing and on where taxpayer money is being spent, as well as a radical overhaul in the way R&D of new medicines are funded.

The pharmaceutical industry often claims that high prices are a direct result of high research and development costs. However, the process for setting drug prices remains unknown and is shrouded in secrecy.

Heidi Chow of Global Justice Now, one of the co-authors of the report said: “Big pharmaceutical companies are ripping us off by taking over drugs developed with substantial public money and selling the drugs back to the NHS at extortionate prices. This is nothing short of daylight robbery of British taxpayers by some of the most profitable corporations in the world. It’s about time politicians take a stand to ensure that drugs produced from publicly-funded research are affordable for the NHS.

“Across the world, 10 million people are dying needlessly because they can’t access vital medicines. The government must take action to ensure that UK-funded research benefits public health globally rather than lining corporate pockets.”

Strong words indeed but, I would say, undoubtedly justified.

I applaud the researchers and authors of the report, and Global Justice Now for publishing it. This despicable behaviour is nothing short of blatant profiteering. Let’s stop it.  NOW.

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* * * * * is the personal website of Ian Franks, a freelance medical writer and editor for various health information sites. He enjoyed a successful career as a journalist, from reporter to editor in the print media. He gained a Journalist of the Year award in his native UK. Ian received a diagnosis of MS in 2002 and now lives in the south of Spain. He uses a wheelchair and advocates on mobility and accessibility issues.


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