Summit News

Time for drug price rethink for chronic diseases

NEW YORK (Reuters) - The world’s top drugmakers have slashed prices for medicines to fight AIDS and malaria. Now the debate is moving to the next level as pressure builds for them to do more against chronic diseases in poor countries.

A health worker checks a blood sample for malaria in the only hospital in Pailin in western Cambodia January 28, 2010. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

A major United Nations meeting in September 2011 will put chronic noncommunicable diseases like cancer, heart disease and diabetes on the global agenda, and industry says it is ready to step up to the plate.

AstraZeneca Plc CEO David Brennan -- the new president of the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers and Associations -- said on Wednesday he expected to see a rethink on drug prices for poor countries.

Companies will, however, be wary on just how far they go in offering tiered, or preferential, prices for medicines that form the mainstay of their business in the developed world.

“I think you are going to see more willingness to do tiered pricing,” Brennan said at the Reuters Health Summit.

“The risk around tiered pricing is that the middle-income markets might then want to reference price against central Africa, and that’s not something we’re going to support.”

Working out a balance to improve access to treatments for the poorest countries while ensuring profits in richer markets would be a key priority for the lobby group, he said.

Chronic diseases which were previously largely confined to rich, well-fed populations are an increasing problem in poorer nations in Asia and Africa, whose populations are increasingly adopting Western lifestyles and living longer.

Yet the price of many medicines remains a high barrier to access.

Global health projections leave little doubt that chronic diseases are rapidly overtaking infectious diseases, such as malaria, AIDS and tuberculosis, as the world’s biggest killers.

The World Economic Forum earlier this year characterized the spread of chronic noncommunicable diseases as a “silent pandemic.”

It said that while deaths from infectious diseases, maternal conditions and poor nutrition would fall by 3 percent in the next decade, deaths from chronic disease would increase by 71 percent.

Some pharmaceutical firms are already cutting drug prices for poorer people, in part to improve their foothold in fast-growing emerging markets. But healthcare campaigners argue deeper price cuts are needed if real progress is to be made on expanding access to medication.

Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Phil Berlowitz