The Myth Of Pharma R & D
Found in the British Medical Journal: (http://www.bmj.com/content/345/bmj.e4348)
August 7, 2012
Pharmaceutical research and development: what do we get for all that money?
By Donald W Light, Joel R Lexchin
Data indicate that the widely touted “innovation crisis” in pharmaceuticals is a myth. The real innovation crisis, say Donald Light and Joel Lexchin, stems from current incentives that reward companies for developing large numbers of new drugs with few clinical advantages over existing ones.
The “innovation crisis” myth
The constant production of reports and articles about the so called innovation crisis rests on the decline in new molecular entities (defined as “an active ingredient that has never been marketed . . . in any form”) since a spike in 1996 that resulted from the clearance of a backlog of applications after large user fees from companies were introduced. This decline ended in 2006, when approvals of new molecular entities returned to their long term mean of between 15 and 25 a year.
The real innovation crisis
More relevant than the absolute number of new drugs brought to the market is the number that represent a therapeutic advance. Although the pharmaceutical industry and its analysts measure innovation in terms of new molecular entities as a stand-in for therapeutically superior new medicines, most have provided only minor clinical advantages over existing treatments.
How much does research and development cost?
Although the pharmaceutical industry emphasises how much money it devotes to discovering new drugs, little of that money actually goes into basic research. Data from companies, the United States National Science Foundation, and government reports indicate that companies have been spending only 1.3% of revenues on basic research to discover new molecules, net of taxpayer subsidies. More than four fifths of all funds for basic research to discover new drugs and vaccines come from public sources. Moreover, despite the industry’s frequent claims that the cost of new drug discovery is now $1.3bn (£834m; €1bn), this figure, which comes from the industry supported Tufts Center, has been heavily criticised. Half that total comes from estimating how much profit would have been made if the money had been invested in an index fund of pharmaceutical companies that increased in value 11% a year, compounded over 15 years. While used by finance committees to estimate whether a new venture is worth investing in, these presumed profits (far greater than the rise in the value of pharmaceutical stocks) should not be counted as research and development costs on which profits are to be made. Half of the remaining $0.65bn is paid by taxpayers through company deductions and credits, bringing the estimate down to one quarter of $1.3bn or $0.33bn. The Tufts study authors report that their estimate was done on the most costly fifth of new drugs (those developed in-house), which the authors reported were 3.44 times more costly than the average, reducing the estimate to $90m. The median costs were a third less than the average, or $60m. Deconstructing other inflators would lower the estimate of costs even further.
Hidden business model
Although the industry’s vast network of public relations departments and trade associations generate a large volume of stories about the so called innovation crisis, the key role of blockbuster drugs, and the crisis created by “the patent cliff,” the hidden business model of pharmaceuticals centres on turning out scores of minor variations, some of which become market blockbusters.
Myth of unsustainable research and development
Complementing the stream of articles about the innovation crisis are those about the costs of research and development being “unsustainable” for the small number of new drugs approved. Both claims serve to justify greater government support and protections from generic competition, such as longer data exclusivity and more taxpayer subsidies. However, although reported research and development costs rose substantially between 1995 and 2010, by $34.2bn, revenues increased six times faster, by $200.4bn. Companies exaggerate costs of development by focusing on their self reported increase in costs and by not mentioning this extraordinary revenue return. Net profits after taxes consistently remain substantially higher than profits for all other Fortune 500 companies.
Towards more cost effective, safer medicines
What can be done to change the business model of the pharmaceutical industry to focus on more cost effective, safer medicines? The first step should be to stop approving so many new drugs of little therapeutic value. The European Medicines Agency (EMA) does Europe a disservice by approving 74% of all new applications based on trials designed by the companies, while keeping data about efficacy and safety secret. Twenty nine per cent of new biologicals approved by the EMA received safety warnings within the first 10 years on the market, and therapeutically similar drugs by definition have no advantages to offset their unknown risk of increased harm. We need to revive the Norwegian “medical need” clause that limited approval of new drugs to those that offered a therapeutic advantage over existing products. This approach led to Norway having seven non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs on the market compared with 22 in the Netherlands. Norway’s medical need clause was eliminated in 1996 when it harmonised its drug approval process with that in the EU. EU countries are paying billions more than necessary for drugs that provide little health gain because prices are not being set to reward new drugs in proportion to their added clinical value.
We should also fully fund the EMA and other regulatory agencies with public funds, rather than relying on industry generated user fees, to end industry’s capture of its regulator. Finally, we should consider new ways of rewarding innovation directly, such as through the large cash prizes envisioned in US Senate Bill 1137 (Sen. Bernie Sanders), rather than through the high prices generated by patent protection. The bill proposes the collection of several billion dollars a year from all federal and non-federal health reimbursement and insurance programmes, and a committee would award prizes in proportion to how well new drugs fulfilled unmet clinical needs and constituted real therapeutic gains. Without patents new drugs are immediately open to generic competition, lowering prices, while at the same time innovators are rewarded quickly to innovate again. This approach would save countries billions in healthcare costs and produce real gains in people’s health.
Dr. McCanne's comment:
This important BMJ article by Donald Light and Joel Lexchin gives us the background that explains why we have the feeling that the pharmaceutical firms are gouging us with outrageous pricing, in spite of their excuse that these prices are necessary to support their research and development - an excuse that seems not to hold water.
The pharmaceutical industry wants less government involvement (except for the research money), when what we need is much more government involvement. Under a single payer system that included pharmaceuticals, prices would be negotiated based on truly legitimate costs plus fair profits, and not based on wasteful expenses such as product research designed primarily to reset the patent clock.
As Light and Lexchin explain, even the European nations would benefit with a greater regulatory role in improving value though such measures as determining medical need of new products. But just think how much better off we would be in the United States if we would just get past the concept that we must go all out to protect the sacred marketplace - a concept that has allowed the pharmaceutical firms to continue to plunder us.
In healthcare, invoking 'market' forces inevitably involves ripping off patients.
Dr. Joe Jarvis