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Drug price rises have damaged trust in pharma industry as EU opens investigation

By Neil Trainis

PUBLISHED: May 16, 2017 | UPDATED: May 16, 2017

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Excessive drug price rises have had a “damaging impact” on trust in pharmaceutical companies, according to Dr Richard Torbett, executive director of the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, in the wake of an unprecedented formal investigation by the European Commission into alleged price hiking of medicines.

The investigation focuses on huge price increases of five cancer medicines by Aspen Pharmacare, who bought the rights to the drugs from GlaxoSmithKline. Aspen could be fined as much as £220 million.

Among the drugs that have risen in price according to the Times include busulfan, used to treat leukaemia, whose cost was increased by 1,200% from £5.20 a pack to £69.02. The price of another drug, chlorambucil, rose by 400%.

It is hoped a new law which was recently passed, known as the Health Service Medical Supplies (Costs) Bill, will stop excessive price rises that Dr Torbett said had damaged trust in the pharmaceutical industry. The ABPI was quick to point out that Aspen is not one of its members.

“The practice of price hikes to generic medicines has had a damaging impact on trust of all pharmaceutical companies and the ABPI has repeatedly said that we do not in any way support or condone it,” said Dr Torbett.

“Thankfully, these examples are rare, and we are fully supportive of recent legislation that will allow the UK government to tackle excessive profiteering and close a loophole that has allowed large price hikes to a small number of NHS medicines.”

A Times investigation last month found that Aspen had tried to increase the price of its medicines across Europe. The EU investigation will also look into claims that Aspen threatened, and in some instances carried out the threat, to stop supplying drugs during talks on pricing in countries including Italy and Spain if it did not secure price rises.

The Times even alleged that Aspen employees talked in internal emails about allowing unused drugs to expire and be destroyed rather than be sold at lower prices.

“When we get sick, we may depend on specific drugs to save or prolong our lives. Companies should be rewarded for producing these pharmaceuticals to ensure that they keep making them in the future,” said EU commissioner Margrethe Vestager.

“But when the price of a drug suddenly goes up by several hundred per cent, this is something the commission may look at.

“More specifically, in this case, we will be assessing whether Aspen is breaking EU competition rules by charging excessive prices for a number of medicines.”

In a statement on its website Aspen said: “While Aspen is not currently in a position to comment on these proceedings, it reaffirms its commitment to fair and open competition in markets in the European Union and around the world.

“Aspen takes compliance with competition laws very seriously and will work constructively with the European Commission in its process.”