How do you price a drug ? Its a question almost impossible to answer without vehement and justifiable criticism, whatever your answer may be. Nothing typifies this better than the absolute storm raging over Sovaldi.
Sovaldi is a new drug introduced as a cure for Hepatitis C, which was hitherto very difficult to cure. Almost a miracle drug with something like 90% success rate. In six months it has already become the largest selling drug in the world. In these six months, it has clocked sales of $5.7 billion. Its maker, Gilead, has seen a 50% jump in share price. Fantastic, you would think.
The only fly in the ointment is that each pill costs $1000 in the US. Or Rs 60,000 if you prefer. You need to take the pills for a six week period, twice a day. That's a bill of $ 84,000. In the rupee equivalent it sounds even more expensive - Rs 50 lakhs.
A veritable storm of accusation and counter argument has arisen. $ 1000 a pill ?? That is criminal argue the opponents. The big bad corporate world is simply gouging the sick to make greedy profits. Bad Bad.
Counters the company - the $ 84,000 treatment bill is significantly cheaper than any alternative which can all be proved to be more expensive with lesser chances of success. This is therefore a cost saving to patients and instead of being deified, the company is being villified, they say.The trouble with this argument is that the alternative is really liver failure.
This being the US of A, there are all sorts of complications. Medicaid, their programme for providing free medicines for the poor, estimates that it would cost it $ 55 bn if every person eligible for Medicaid and is suffering from Hepatitis C is given this medicine. And the law says no drug that has been approved by the FDA can be withheld from Medicaid. Of course, there isn't the $ 55bn lying around. It has also been estimated that the premiums for Medicare (their programme for the elderly) could go up by upto 8% on this single drug alone.
Free market and freedom of pricing is a fundamental tenet of the capitalist world. America, to its credit, defends this even under difficult circumstances. The pharmaceutical industry is a special one - most research results in failure and blockbuster drugs are extremely rare. For every success there are probably 100 failures. If you do not allow blockbuster drugs to make very high profits, there will not be the pipeline of innovation. For all the noise from the rest of the world, the fact is that most of medical innovation comes from the US.
What about the rest of the world, indeed. In previous cases phramaceutical companies have been pilloried for pricing drugs so expensive in the third world that the most needy have no access to them. Gilead, mindful of these pressures, has priced the drug at $11 a pill in Egypt. This has resulted in a storm of protest in the US. If you can sell it for $ 11 in Egypt, why are you charging me $ 1000, shout the American customers (insurance companies, actually, for it is they who foot the bill in the US). They are cursing that America is subsidising the rest of the world on medical innovation. Gilead is shaking its head saying heads I lose, tails you win.
So back to the basic question - how do you price a drug. Yes, free markets and freedom of pricing is important. Yes, huge profits are the attraction for costly R&D which mostly fails. And yet when something succeeds, it creates a monopoly and it is an accepted principle in capitalism that monopolies will be regulated by the government. It is also a fact that, unlike in other product categories, the consumer does not have freedom of choice and is in an extremely vulnerable position at the time of consumption. Difficult issues to grapple with.
The last body you would expect to give a sane solution to this, is the US Senate, filled with pompous gasbags of doubtful literacy and questionable intelligence. But in this case, this blogger is actively looking to the US Senate to provide an opinion. For the issue has been taken up by Ron Wyden , one of the (only ?) respected, principled Senator from Oregon (Sriram take a bow for electing him). He is one of the few capable of producing a position of substance.
What do you think. Even this blogger, a champion of free markets and rewarding innovation, is blanching at the thought of a $1000 pill. The logic may be impeccable. But to swallow Rs 60,000 twice a day .......