Torcetrapib’s failure is no excuse for overpriced drugs

As expected, Pfizer’s failed attempt to bring torcetrapib to market has led the pharmaceutical industry to argue that overpriced drugs are necessary to lessen the blow of R&D setbacks. However, at Pharma Marketing Blog, John Mack says the reported $800 million in R&D for torcetrapib is probably inflated:

If Pfizer really spent $800 million on the 15,000-patient torcetrapib trial, that would mean that it spent $53,000 per patient! Even at $10K per patient for a trial–two to three times a typical CRO estimate and 50 percent higher than the NCI’s reported average costs–a 15,000 patient trial would cost about $150 million, not $800 million. Granted, there were probably other trials, but this was the biggest by far. Even doubling the estimate to $300 million doesn’t get us close to $800 million.

Some Big Pharma supporters have also said that the FDA has become too strict in its drug approval process, and that torcetrapib’s harmful results were overstated. Merrill Goozner, author of the 800 Million Dollar Pill, points out on his blog that:

On the surface, the numbers did seem awfully small: a 60 percent increase in deaths, but only on a 51-death baseline. There were 7,500 people in the trial. But what does that increase mean when you give the drug to millions of people? If half the patients were in the new drug arm (3,750), and that resulted in an excess of 30 deaths, then that would add up to 8,000 extra deaths for every million people who took the drug combination. Since there’s nearly 20 million people on Lipitor in this country, if even half of them were successfully switched to this new combination pill, that could have resulted in 80,000 excess deaths — twice as many as die in car accidents every year.

The Wall Street Journal discusses the topic further in today’s online edition.

Bottom line: Pfizer’s screw-up is no excuse for overpriced drugs or excessive protection by the FDA; if anything, Pfizer’s bad decision-making should make you question how much power the FDA has effectively ceded to Big Pharma. The drug industry can adequately fund its R&D efforts without killing the consumer with high costs.

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