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How pharmaceuticals offer cheaper cancer drugs

But is there a catch?

Kampala, Uganda | FLAVIA NASSAKA | Tackling cancer requires high investment in training and infrastructure says Meg O’Brien, the Managing Director Global Cancer Treatment at the American Cancer Society.

She told The Independent on Oct.25 that her organisation has brokered a deal with two pharmaceutical companies to provide Uganda and five other countries with inexpensive drugs for common cancers.

It is also setting up software to forecast drug shortages such that healthcare planners will no longer be caught off guard. Dubbed ChemoQuant forecast, the software to be built over the next six months is part of a package to ensure more people have access to cancer treatments.

Under the agreement, US-based Pfizer and India’s Cipla agreed to sell sixteen specified medicines at half the market price to Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia, Nigeria, Rwanda, and Tanzania.

In Uganda, Cipla Uganda’s Executive Director, Nevin Bradford, says the company will supply eight medicines for breast cancer, lung and intestinal cancer in addition to leukemia. Initially the drugs will come from their mother company in India but plans are underway to manufacture them locally at their plant in Luzira near Kampala. Feasibility studies are currently being done.

In an email to the Independent on Nov.01, Bradford who was not yet sure of the exact quantities that Uganda will be procuring said there is a huge unmet need for cancer diagnosis and treatment including medicines.

The Head of Pharmacy at the UCI, Dr. Benjamin Mwesige, says the increasing number of people presenting with various cancers demands innovation in ensuring a steady supply of drugs or else many patients will die. In 2016, for example, of the 4000 cases recorded at the Institute, 79% died due to either diagnosing the disease late or lack of access to necessary treatment. Mwesige says although the Institute budgeted Shs12 billion for drugs, the government offered only Shs6.9 billion. He says, unfortunately, such budget cuts are nothing unusual at UCI. At the same time, only about 3% of patients can afford to pay for their drugs because of cost. That is why getting more affordable drug suppliers appears to be the way to go.

Mwesige says, however, the Pfizer-Cipla offer is one of many companies that continue to flock the Ministry and the Institute with offers of cheaper medicines.

“We get such proposals almost every day,” Mwesige says.

Before the Pfizer – Cipla deal was signed, the government in June reached an agreement with Novartis; a healthcare company based in Switzerland, to supply the country with 15 drugs for Non-Communicable Diseases including breast cancer at a cost of one dollar per treatment per month.

At the Ministry of Health, Dr. Gerald Mutungi, the Programme Manager for Non-Communicable Diseases, says the government is now connecting their partner pharmaceuticals to faith- based health facilities for even cheaper drugs.

As the number of offers grows, questions are being raised about why there is this sudden interest by pharmaceuticals to sell to a country like Uganda where most depend on donation for their medical needs and yet drug development is an expensive venture?

For humanitarian organisations like O’Brien’s Cancer Society, the reason could be to ensure that more people have access to affordable quality medicines. She says the countries chosen carry the biggest burden on the continent with over 40% of all cancer cases in Sub-Saharan Africa happening there.

O’Brien says the Society decided to work with these Pfizer and Cipla because the list of products they offer overlaps the list of products that African countries are buying and they have products that are approved by a stringent regulatory authority.

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