Why Is The Cure For Cancer So Expensive?

I don’t normally do this. Get out of bed at ten past six in the morning to go and join a protest against Roche, the giant pharmaceutical company. But yesterday I am very glad I did. One bus and one tube later and I was standing outside Westminster Cathedral with an eclectic group of activists, doctors and charity workers. The most striking were those who’d donned the custom-made fluorescent pink dresses with added boobs. I wore a modest headband with messages stuck to it including ‘Pharma Greed Kills’ and similar protestations. Then off we went, marching from the Cathedral to the revolving doors of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry.

Donna
Donna, in all her bright pink glory!

The groups on the march included Act Up London, Treatment Action Campaign and Stop Aids, all united in the struggle against HIV/AIDS and all aware that the greed of pharmaceutical companies affects people with so many other illnesses as well. Also present were Universities Allied for Essential Medicines, a student-led organisation working to improve access to and affordability of medicines. And it wasn’t just London in protest there were groups in Brazil, France, Malaysia, the US and Zambia. Meanwhile, the crowds gathering in South Africa were not only just making demands of Roche but were commemorating Tobeka Daki, a passionate activist who sadly died from cancer unable to afford the treatments.

Back in London we started chanting as we marched, “Say no to Pharma Greed, Give us the cancer drugs we need” and other less catchy numbers that didn’t rhyme. We got stared at, photographed, laughed at and cheered by various members of the public. At 8.30 in the morning we did make for a nice change from the usual grey of the morning commute. We overshot the ABPI building but quickly backtracked to set up shop. Whilst others chalked on the pavement in pink, gave speeches and waved placards I handed out leaflets and the message was clear: Roche can profitably manufacture a year’s supply of Herceptin® (unbranded it’s called Trastuzumab), a cancer fighting drug, for £190 yet it is currently costing patients tens of thousands of pounds annually. People are dying from a disease that can be treated because Roche is putting profits before people. Justice for people with breast cancer, that’s what we want.

Many people avoided my gaze as I tried handing out the flyers whilst others just carried on listening to their music (seriously, I spotted so many of those fancy, giant ambient-noise blocking headphones than ever before). Some did take the flyer with an awkward smile whilst others stopped to find out more. That, for example, the development of Herceptin® and other vital cancer treating drugs depended on public sector support, philanthropic donations and the US government’s National Institutes of Health. Whilst Roche and one of its subsidiaries, Genentech, also invested in the development of these drugs for some reason they hold the patent so can set the price. And that price is high, they’ve already earned more than $60 billion in profits from the sale of Herceptin® alone. Roche’s CEO, Severin Schwan, isn’t doing that badly either. Back in 2015 he took home a nice salary of $12 million. So, whilst Roche could easily cut the cost of these drugs and still make a profit they just aren’t.

pharma-greed
Pharma Greed Kills

But it’s worse than that because Roche aren’t just keeping the prices artificially high they are fighting dirty to ensure they have a monopoly over these drugs. In India Roche have embroiled the country’s drug regulatory body and producers of similar products to Trastuzumab in long-running and complex litigation to prevent the widespread availability of potentially affordable versions of the drug. In Brazil and Argentina, Roche is one of the pharmaceutical companies litigating against those governments for their attempts to use legal international safeguards to protect public health and make Trastuzumab more accessible. In South Africa Roche holds patents on Trastuzumab that will last until at least 2033. In essence, Roche are fighting tooth and nail to keep the prices high even whilst so many people die. It turns out that ill and dying people are profitable.

Chalk
Innovative use of some pink chalk

Back on the grey streets of London I was very grateful every time someone took a flyer. Because even if they just put it in the recycling bin when they get home what is important is that more people are aware. Cancer is a disease that touches the lives of all of us. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime and 1 in 870 men will receive this diagnosis. We may have lost someone we cared for, we may know someone who has it or a friend of a friend, or ourselves. And whilst it is risky to talk of a ‘cure’ for cancer there are so many life-extending medicines out there which can treat it and improve the lives of those who have it. So it’s not that the cure doesn’t exist it’s that the cure is too expensive. However, at 8.30 am on a grey, Tuesday morning in February I did not always have the time to explain this as people passed me by. But many did stop to look at the giant pink banner: “Pharma Greed Kills” is a simple and shocking statement and it is true. Profits are being pitted against people and profits are winning. Until we can contain and control money we will keep being forced to fight this ruthless, tragic battle because too many people love money more than they love others (or even themselves). I hope one day Severin Schwan wakes up and does the right thing. Until then I’ll keep doing my best to wake up before the sun rises so I can join those bright pink many-boobed beacons of hope.

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Wear A Red Ribbon Folks, It’s World AIDS Day

What!? I hear you say, why do we need yet another day about something? Didn’t Trump just get elected to power on International Day Against Fascism and Antisemitism. Well, let me put this to you starkly: since the discovery of the virus in 1984 over 35 million people have died of HIV or AIDS. As the World AIDS Day website says, it is “one of the most destructive pandemics is history.” It is a plague that has killed many, is killing many and will kill many. With it comes another plague too, one of apathy and stigma, and this you can help fight by educating yourself and those around you.

I could carry on like this, relaying to you facts you can read on Wikipedia or one of a number of websites. I could tell you all about the inspiring film “How To Survive A Plague” which tells the stories of numerous passionate activists and expert scientists working together to develop cures and treatments for HIV and AIDS (on tonight from 6pm at The Cinema Museum in south-east London, go, go, go). I could also tell you about the greed of pharmaceutical companies and their indifference to the suffering of millions. I could tell you of the stigma and hate burning in the hearts of so many people, be they pedestrians on the pavements, preachers in the pulpits or presidents in the White House. I could tell you how ongoing ignorance condemns so many to needless misery and death. Yes, I could tell you these things but I think you can find them out for yourself.

What I will tell you is that I love someone who is HIV positive. And the fact they’re HIV positive makes no difference to me. Instead perhaps that I admire them a little more for the courage with which they meet the world – a world whose track record on this cause is deeply shameful, save for those activists, scientists and all their supporters. And there’s still so much ignorance and prejudice out there, which means those who are HIV positive are not treated positively. So this World AIDS Day, have a heart and wear a red ribbon for those who have HIV and to commemorate those who are no longer with us. Go educate yourself too, it’s all here (and watch the movie tonight) and share this post, please. And remember this, that the HIV and AIDS pandemic is more than just a plague it is also a war, for when cruel hostility, bigotry and indifference result in the unnecessary deaths of so many then I’d say that’s mass murder. I wish that it didn’t have to be like this, that people were not forced to pick sides in this fight, but until my wish is granted the battle rages on. Please pick the right side.

HIV Blind Date: Give ‘Em Your Money

Der-de. Der-de. Der-de-de-de-de-de. Deeer-de. Deeer-d. Der-de-de-de-de-de. Yup, that was my effort at recreating the Blind Date theme tune via monosyllables. In my head it totally worked. For those of you who don’t come from the UK and aren’t as old as me you might not know about the famous TV show Blind Date hosted by the late Cilla Black (what a woman). There were four contestants: three hidden behind a screen whilst the other one asked them a series of provocative (but never too provocative, it was on around 7pm) questions. At the end, the questioner picked one of the three to take on a date and the audience enjoyed watching as they had to suppress their disappointment whilst the other two walked off and sometimes feign joy at meeting the one they’d chosen. Whilst Cilla charmed the audience a random disembodied voice belonging to a man named Graham helped explain the intricacies of the show. We loved it.

But that was then and this is now. The new show taking the world by storm is HIV Blind Date. A similar premise except this time the people running the show are tackling the root causes of the HIV pandemic. Namely, pharmaceutical greed, government inaction and stigma. And, until the beginning of this year, I knew woefully little about these issues. The groups behind the HIV Blind Date include Positively UK and Act Up. When I turned up to one of their meetings in January I learnt a lot in a very short space of time. I learned about PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis), a daily pill that can stop the transmission of HIV. I’ll repeat that: a daily pill that can stop the transmission of HIV. Unfortunately, pharmaceutical greed comes into play here because big pharma want to make big bucks and monetise the pill when really it should be freely available to all on the NHS. Enter stage right government inaction and the huge deficit of political will on taking this issue forward. Furthermore, when it comes to austerity, so many frontline services that provide counselling and support to people with HIV are being cut. What sort of message does this give to the 17 people who are diagnosed with HIV each day in the UK?

In a short space of time I learned an awful lot and I’m still learning more. Not least about Act Up, a group dedicated to campainging on these issues and challenging stigma. Because there’s so much stigma out there at the moment and so much of it is ignorant and ill-informed. So, if like me, you find yourself a little clued-down on these issues then head over to the Act Up website and clue yourself up. In the meantime forget what you think you know and stop making crass assumptions about anyone with HIV. And donate your cash to HIV Blind Date as they open the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa!