Fear and secrecy used to drive medicine costs – conference told

Spiralling expense of drugs means even wealthiest states struggling to pay prices

Patent expert Ellen ‘t Hoen questioned whether the prices pharmaceutical firms charged could ever be justified. Photograph: Getty Images

Patent expert Ellen ‘t Hoen questioned whether the prices pharmaceutical firms charged could ever be justified. Photograph: Getty Images

 

Big pharma is holding governments across the world hostage, and using fear and secrecy to drive up the cost of medicines, a conference on drug prices in Dublin has been told.

The spiralling expense of drugs means even the wealthiest countries are struggling to pay the prices demanded by the pharmaceutical sector, the conference heard.

The gathering was jointly organised by Access to Medicines Ireland, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the Irish Forum for Global Health and the Royal College of Surgeons.

Dutch intellectual patent expert Ellen ‘t Hoen said that 10 or 15 years ago when the price of HIV treatments and other pharmaceutical products was being discussed, the focus was on the high cost for developing countries. But that “has very much changed and it is now a problem everywhere. Even high-income countries now find themselves in a situation where they cannot make proven effective medicines available.”

Ms ‘t Hoen said big pharmaceutical companies aimed “to make as much money as they can for as long as possible”. And she questioned whether the prices they charged could ever be justified.

“Where we have data we can figure out how much it costs to develop these drugs. It is costly but it doesn’t cost €2 billion like the industry says it does,” she said.

Lack of transparency

She noted an absence of transparency across the sector and suggested that “governments are in a hostage situation”. She said policy was being driven by fear. “There is fear that companies will leave or that they will not develop new drugs. It is fear, fear, fear and I think that is wrong; governments need to step away from that.”

She said EU states needed to work together to lower prices. “What we need first is for governments to say we don’t accept this any more but instead they lock themselves into secret negotiations.”

It was a theme echoed by Yannis Natsis, policy manager of the European Health Alliance. “No one in Europe can afford medicines and from Cyprus to Denmark rationing has become the norm,” he said. “We need to change the way we incentivise medical R&D.”

He addressed the importance of the pharmaceutical sector in the Republic where there were more than 30,000 people employed by the biggest biotech companies in the world.