Campaign for affordable medicines

© Opak/Public Eye
More than two billion people worldwide do not have access to the essential medicines they need. This problem does not only concern developing countries, but also rich countries like Switzerland. The reason: the explosion of the price of drugs. Thanks to patents, the pharmas can fix prices as they wish – the authorities are powerless. The good news? There is an effective remedy! By issuing a compulsory licence, a country can allow the sale of cheaper generic products and thereby guarantee access to treatment. Public Eye has analysed the situation in Switzerland and has launched a collective appeal to the Federal Counsel, asking it to act against this infernal spiral.

Patents, opacity and outrageous prices

With the adoption of the Agreement on Trade-related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights of the WTO (TRIPS) in 1995, a new minimum standard in terms of the granting of patents was established at an international level, including one for medicines. Thanks to the monopoly resulting from the patents, the pharmas manage to impose ever higher prices for their new treatments. To justify these exorbitant prices, they cite the costs of R&D, one of the most closely guarded secrets of this very opaque industry. Indeed, nothing obliges the pharmas to disclose the actual investments required to develop a new molecule. Worse still, the added value and the benefits of new medicines are not always demonstrated by solid scientific proof

Report: Protect patients, not patents

Public Eye, May 2018.

Public health at stake

The initial objective of patents – to guarantee a balance between public and private interests – has long been scorned in favour of the pharmas, whose net profits often exceed 20% of their turnover. The prohibitive prices deprive many sick people of the treatments best adapted to their needs. Although the lack of access to essential medicines previously affected only developing and emergent countries, today it seriously affects rich countries like Switzerland. Governments are powerless in the face of the all-powerful pharma giants. They do not succeed in reducing the prices significantly, which would thus guarantee the right to health of their populations. The current state-run system of price control is ineffective for patented drugs in a monopoly situation.

In the country of the pharmas, the patient is not King

What is the situation in Switzerland? Medicines represent a substantial part of healthcare costs, which continue to rise – in parallel with the health insurance premiums. According to the statistics of the Federal Statistics Office (FSO), they amounted to 6.5 billion francs in 2016, more than 20% of the cost of the basic health insurance. To try to curb the increase in these costs, the Swiss authorities resort to a flawed instrument: limitations to reimbursement, which can lead to rationing. In practice, such a decision strongly restricts or complicates access to certain essential treatments, as was shown recently by the new treatments for hepatitis C.

Cancer – too profitable an illness?

While cancer is one of the main causes of death in the world, the cost of treatments has soared. In Switzerland, anti-cancer drugs represent an important part of healthcare costs due to the price of drugs. Frequently, the treatment cost more than 100,000 francs per year and per person, which is 30% more than the average gross annual salary.

Perjeta – an iconic case

Almost 540,000 francs – this is the total amount, over a period of six years, that a health insurance company had to pay for the treatment of breast cancer in a Swiss patient. It was made up of two anti-cancer drugs from the Basel-based giant Roche: Herceptin (more than 70 billion francs revenue since its launch) and Perjeta, introduced in 2012 and whose cost-benefit ratio is considered to be modest. Roche markets three anti-cancer drugs out of four for this type of breast cancer (HER2+) and has a dominant position in this area.

In Switzerland or elsewhere, medical care should not be a question of money

Patients obliged to beg for money – soon a reality in Switzerland? In May 2018, Public Eye launched a big campaign called “For affordable drugs”.

Every human being should be able to enjoy the best possible state of health. This is a fundamental human right, of which access to essential medicines is part. The current model of state price-fixing endangers health systems and the principle of universal healthcare coverage everywhere in the world.

The solution: compulsory licencing

The TRIPS Agreement includes “flexibilities” that are designed to mitigate the negative effects of patents. The compulsory licence is the most efficient way, in the current system, to reduce prices and guarantee access to essential medicines for everyone. It allows a third party (for example, a manufacturer of generic products) to produce and market a similar product, in spite of the existence of a patent. However, compulsory licencing is the object of aggressive disinformation campaigns and diplomatic pressures, as it threatens the financial interests of the pharmas.

Many Swiss and international experts “prescribe” compulsory licencing to fight against the unfair pricing of drugs. They are requesting the Swiss authorities to act at the heart of the problem. Here, we give them the floor.

Expert opinions:

Franco Cavalli, interviewed by Public Eye (2018)

Our campaign: for affordable medicines

In cooperation with the Swiss Cancer League, Public Eye launched a big campaign at a national level in 2018, requesting that the Federal Counsel take internal and external political measures to combat two-tier medicine and to guarantee at last affordable medicines. The high price of drugs is not inevitable! It can and must be fought against by our authorities.

More than 33,000 people supported our collective appeal, urging the Federal Counsel to act against the exorbitant price of drugs, and to use compulsory licencing when the defence of the public interest demands it.

  • © Sebastien Gerber
  • © Sebastien Gerber
  • © Sebastien Gerber
More than 33,000 people supported our collective appeal for affordable drugs.