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Study shows huge global variation in cancer drug costs

UK spends 78% of GDP per capita on patented drugs

Jo Carlowe

Tuesday, 07 June 2016

The cost of cancer drugs varies substantially around the world, according to new research.

The study,* led by an international team of researchers, and presented this week at the American Association of Clinical Oncology’s annual conference, looked into the differences in prices across the world, but also at affordability in each nation studied, calculating 'gross domestic product per capita' to compare figures.

The team looked at prices for monthly doses of 23 cancer drugs, 15 of which were off-patent 'generics', the remainder being patented drugs. 

Despite lower prices in poorer countries, both generic and patented drugs appear to be less affordable in poorer countries. 

Costs in Australia, China, India, South Africa, the UK and US were assessed, with prices taken from locally and nationally recognised institutions and was converted into US dollars. The study used so-called ‘list prices’ to make its comparisons, so did not take into account any discounts the NHS receives through negotiation.

Cancer drug prices are known to differ from country to country, but little had been revealed about the scale of the differences.

The team found that the average monthly price of patented drugs varied six-fold, from $1,515 (£1,050) in India to $8,694 (£6,022) in the US. The UK spent $2,587 (£1,800).

The equivalent average price of generic drugs also showed huge variation, from $120 (£83) in South Africa to $654 (£453) in the US. The UK figure was $458 (£318).

When countries’ GDP figures were taken into account, the percentage of GDP per capita spent on patented drugs ranged from 71% in Australia to 313% in India, with the UK at 78%. Generic drugs varied from 3% in Australia to 48% in China, with the UK at 14%.

“This study provides a glimpse into prices and affordability of cancer drugs around the world and sets the stage for further research,” said study leader Dr Daniel Goldstein, from the Rabin Medical Center in Israel. 

“However, the implications of our findings are limited because we were not able to take discounts and rebates into account, which would better predict drug affordability.”

​Emma Greenwood, Cancer Research UK's head of policy development, said the study highlighted the challenges health systems face in ensuring patients have access to new cancer medicines. 

"We want all patients in the UK to be able to get the best, evidence-based treatments available for their condition," she said. 

"It’s essential that the pharmaceutical industry works with the Government and NHS, so that patients in the UK can have the drugs that are of real value to both them and the health system. 

"We also want further reform to the system so it’s fit for the future, suitable for the complex nature of cancer treatment, and reflects moves towards personalised medicine and combination treatment."


* Goldstein DA, et al. Global differences in cancer drug prices: A comparative analysis. 2016 ASCO Annual Meeting, J Clin Oncol 34, 2016 (suppl; abstr LBA6500)

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