Roche has a worldwide monopoly on the breast cancer drug ‘trastuzumab’ (marketed under the brand name Herceptin).
In South Africa women with HER2 breast cancer can’t afford the drug as it costs ½ a million Rand (approximately USD 34,000 or Rs. 23 lakhs) and the healthcare system provides it to very few women who need it due to the steep cost.
In 2014, the ‘Campaign for Affordable Trastuzumab’ managed to challenge patent barriers (granted and pending) with Roche under pressure withdrawing the blocking patent. However Roche has launched a series of vexatious litigation on grounds that the insert accompanying the more affordable trastuzumab marketed by its competitors violated copyright. It also used litigation to create doubt around the registration of the biosimilar in India to discourage oncologists from prescribing, and other Health Ministries from approving and procuring the more affordable biosimilars.
At the Durban AIDS Conference treatment activists from across the world were present and decided to organise an action to ‘shame’ Roche for its exorbitant pricing of the life saving drug and its attempts to block competition. On Wednesday, a creative protest led by Treatment Action Campaign delivered bras to the Roche public relations stall among cries of ‘don’t booby trap our treatment’.
WHO and Health Ministries in the developing countries should utilize competition to drive down prices by developing a regulatory pathway that will reduce wastage and address concerns regarding the efficacy of biosimlars among oncologists allowing more affordable trastuzumab to be available to HER2 + women.