JAMES SUROWIECKI APRIL 28, 2014
Few people have done better in the recent stock boom than biotech investors. Biotech was the best-performing market sector last year, and in the past two years its stocks rose a hundred and twenty per cent. But suddenly, in late March, the stocks tanked, some falling more than twenty per cent in a few weeks. The selloff can be explained to some extent as a market correction and part of a wider flight from risk. But the real story concerns a revolutionary new hepatitis-C drug developed by the biotech giant Gilead.
Hepatitis C affects 3.2 million Americans; untreated, it leads to scarring of the liver and to liver cancer. Until now, the best treatments cured only about half of patients and often had debilitating side effects. But in December the F.D.A. approved the first in a new wave of hep-C drugs, Gilead’s Sovaldi. This is huge news—not just in medicine but on Wall Street. Vamil Divan, a drug-industry analyst at Credit Suisse, told me, “Sovaldi and the other new hep-C drugs are great drugs for a tough disease.” Sovaldi can cure ninety per cent of patients in three to six months, with only minor side effects. There’s just one catch: a single dose of the drug costs a thousand dollars, which means that a full, twelve-week course of treatment comes to more than eighty grand.
For Gilead this is great. Take an expensive treatment, multiply by a huge number of hepatitis-C patients, and you get a very lucrative business proposition. It’s also good news for patients. But it’s a big problem for insurers and taxpayers, who—given that hepatitis-C patients have an average annual income of just twenty-three thousand dollars—are going to end up footing much of the bill. There has been an uproar of criticism. Private insurers blasted Gilead’s pricing strategy; the pharmacy-benefit manager Express Scripts said that it wanted its clients to stop using Sovaldi once an alternative appears. Then, on March 20th, three Democratic members of Congress sent Gilead a letter asking it to explain why Sovaldi costs so much. The letter had no force of law, but it spooked investors by raising the spectre of what they most fear—price regulation.
Investors love drug companies in part because they often have tremendous pricing power. Drugs designed to fight rare diseases routinely cost two or three hundred thousand dollars; cancer drugs often cost a hundred grand. And, whereas product prices in most industries drop over time, pharmaceuticals actually get more expensive. The price of the anti-leukemia drug Gleevec, for instance, has tripled since 2001. And, across the board, drug prices rise much faster than inflation. The reason for this is that prices for brand-name, patented drugs aren’t really set in a free market. The people taking the drugs aren’t paying most of the cost, which makes them less price-sensitive, and the bargaining power of those who do foot the bill is limited. Insurers have to cover drugs that work well; the economists Darius Lakdawalla and Wesley Yin recently found that even big insurers had “virtually zero” ability to drive a hard bargain when it comes to drugs with no real equivalents. And the biggest buyer in the drug market—the federal government—is prohibited from bargaining for lower prices for Medicare, and from refusing to pay for drugs on the basis of cost. In short, if you invent a drug that doctors think is necessary, you have enormous leeway to charge what you will.
Still, this is an inherently fragile arrangement, dependent on our willingness to keep paying whatever the companies ask. The signs of a backlash are clear. More than a hundred cancer specialists have called for action to lower the price of cancer drugs. The chair of M. D. Anderson’s leukemia department co-authored an article saying that the cost of cancer drugs is “out of control.” The United Kingdom has announced a cap on annual drug spending, and Germany has adopted stringent rules to determine what drugs it pays for. Now Sovaldi has people talking again about allowing the U.S. government to do something similar. “It’s a growing issue, and this outcry may be a sign that we’re going to see more pushback,” Divan said. Every other developed country, after all, has some form of drug-price regulation, and it’s not as if drug companies then abandon those markets. Gilead sells Sovaldi in the U.K. for fifty-seven thousand dollars per treatment, nearly thirty per cent less than the price we pay.
Price restrictions have always been a political non-starter here, but at some point the math of the situation will be hard to resist. According to a study by the research group I.S.I., by 2018 spending on “specialty drugs” like Sovaldi could account for half of all drug spending in the U.S. Furthermore, one traditional argument against price controls is looking weaker: biotech companies claim that prices need to be high to reward risky and expensive innovation, but the fact that they’re churning out drugs and profits so consistently seems to undermine that claim. Biotech, in other words, may become the victim of its own success: the bigger the profits, the bigger the likelihood of regulation.
You might think that this prospect would encourage companies to be more cautious. But, if you assume that price controls are coming, the rational play is to squeeze out all the profits you can now. The uproar over Sovaldi may, somewhere down the line, help contain drug prices. But in the short run it could well make drugs even more expensive. And that’s what you call a serious side effect.
At AMP we are looking to Harris and Harris Group ( TINY) – little know and about to file for three or more IPOs in the next year.They avoid long periods of research and expensive investing by investing in advanced research projects.
OPKO Health ( OPK) is following the same route and has the backing of Dr. Phillip Frost – former head of TEVA.
or to the cynic