Govt, Dutch firm in deal to lower cost of cancer drugs

Sunday January 5 2020


In 2018, 2.1 million women contracted the breast cancer disease with 630,000 dying of late diagnosis and lack of access to affordable treatment. PHOTO | Cyril NDEGEYA  

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Rwanda is negotiating with Dutch-based pharmaceutical firm Samsung Bioepis to lower cancer drugs.

Rwanda Today has learnt that the biosimilar version under consideration is Trastuzumab, which is a monoclonal antibody, a targeted therapy medicine used to treat breast cancer.

“The available Trastuzumab original biologic drug for breast cancer is expensive; even patients on private health insurance majority cannot afford,” said Dr Francois Uwinkindi, director of Cancer Diseases Unit at Rwanda Biomedical Centre.

Dr Uwinkindi said that apart from support to provide simple treatment, patients using the universal insurance Mutuelle de santé cannot afford the medication.

“Having a prequalified biosimilar version of the medicine is a milestone to cancer patients in the country since it has shown high efficacy in curing early-stage breast cancer and, in some cases, more advanced forms of the disease,” Dr Uwinkindi said.

“We had planned to have the original drug at a bit lower price after negotiations with the manufactures, but we have changed the request to the new cheap biosimilar, which will somehow be affordable to majority patients,” he said.


He added that though the price is still high and unaffordable to many, especially people covered by Mutuelle de santé, a cost reduction of 65 per cent is a step forward to ease access for breast cancer treatment.

In 2018, 2.1 million women contracted the disease with 630,000 dying because of late diagnosis and lack of access to affordable treatment. World Health Organisatio (WHO) projects that rates will hit 3.1 million  by 2040, with low and middle-income countries recording the greatest increase.

A recent report by WHO indicates that the biosimilar trastuzumab is 65 per cent cheaper than the original. It will cost $7,000 (Rwf6.5 million) from $20,000 (Rwf18.7million) to complete the treatment.

Daniela Bagozzi, global senior information officer at WHO said although other biosimilar versions of trastuzumab are available, this marked the first time one has been prequalified. Ms Bagozzi said prequalification of the biosimilar breast cancer drug means that the medicine meets international standards, thus making it eligible for procurement by national health authorities.

“Women in many cultures suffer from gender disparity when it comes to accessing health services and the high cost of medicines. Effective, affordable breast cancer treatment should be a right for all women, not the privilege of a few,” said Ms Bagozzi.

She added that Trastuzumab was included in the WHO Essential Medicines List in 2015 as an essential treatment for the estimated 20 per cent of breast cancer tumors.

She further said that the medication was made available but governments were reluctant to order it or put up a tender to purchase it. “The news now is that there is an alternative biosimilar drug that is  quality assured for low-income countries including Rwanda whose citizens could not afford specialty Trastuzumab,” she said, adding “countries have more choice and this could bring even the price of specialty down.”

Ms Bagozzi said WHO prequalification process is a seal of good quality that makes a drug company’s product eligible for bulk procurement by United Nations agencies.

But in the case of drugs for cancer and other non-communicable diseases, there are almost no UN-based donor programmes for procurement and supply to low-income countries.

urrently, annual treatment costs for the brand name product range from between $10,000 in South Africa and $19,000 in Australia and $29,000 in the USA, according to an informal WHO survey.