Cancer-drug pricing: Competition watchdog probes Roche, Aspen and Pfizer

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By Arabile Gumede, Loni Prinsloo and Kevin Crowley

(Bloomberg) – South Africa joined the global crackdown on the rising cost of life-saving cancer treatments by starting an investigation into drug companies including Roche Holding AG, Pfizer and Aspen Pharmacare Holdings for allegedly charging excessive prices.

A logo sits on display outside the offices of Aspen Pharmacare Holdings Ltd. in Durban, South Africa. Photographer: Waldo Swiegers/Bloomberg

Roche and Pfizer are suspected of charging high prices for breast and lung-cancer drugs respectively while Aspen may have abused its dominance in the market for bone and blood cancer drugs, the country’s Competition Commission said on Tuesday.

“The matter is of grave national importance,” the antitrust body said in a statement.

South Africa’s investigation follows probes by the European Union last month into pharmaceutical companies including Aspen for the pricing of cancer drugs. The EU move was prompted by action in the U.K. and Italy. Separately, U.S. officials have been looking at pricing of generic medicines for more than two years, triggering civil lawsuits from customers who say they were overcharged.

A 12-month course of Roche’s trastuzumab breast cancer medicine, branded Herceptin and Herclon, costs about R500 000 ($39,000) if administered privately, while is offered at “substantially lower prices” in the public sector, the commission said.

“As a result of exorbitant prices, most breast cancer patients in both the private and public sectors are unable to get treatment,” it said. The investigation related to Aspen is into its generic products, and similar to the EU’s probe.

Aspen hasn’t increased prices outside of a framework established by South Africa’s Department of Health and is “committed to full and constructive engagement” with the commission’s investigation, the Durban-based company said in a statement.

Roche will provide all required information once it is notified of the probe, spokesperson Aadila Fakier said by email. Pfizer didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment.

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