Drug Pricing Is Important, but the Need for Scientific Innovation is Greater

Drug Revenue

The price of prescription medications and life-saving drugs continues to be a hot issue for the general public, as well as politicians hoping to score support among concerned voters.

In recent weeks, President Donald Trump has scolded Pfizer for its second round of price increases this year – increases which the company later walked back following the public dressing down. In the wake of that, several other companies also announced plans to limit price increases. But a fixation on price is distracting from the bigger picture of health care, Regeneron’s George D. Yancopoulos and Leonard Schleifer argue in a Forbes article.

Yancopoulos, Regeneron’s founder and chief scientific officer, and Schleifer, chief executive officer, argue in the article that while drug affordability is important, the single-minded argument detracts from “the overwhelming health care crisis facing our society” and creates a negative image of an industry that provides substantial benefits to society. The two Regeneron executives noted that there is noteworthy concern over the aging population and “other lifestyle considerations” in the United States. Yancopoulos and Schleifer posited that within the next few decades, there will be approximately 20 million Americans with Alzheimer’s disease and more than 50 million people with Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, the two said more than one-third of the U.S. population will be considered obese. Add those predictions with the continued concern of cancer and heart disease, and Yancopoulos and Schleifer said these diseases will lead to “an unfathomable social and economic burden.”

“Imagine the cost of institutionalization of millions of dementia patients or the cost of transplant and amputation surgeries for the obese Type 2 diabetic population,” they argue in the Forbes piece. “Innovative new treatments are one of the few hopes for curtailing this growing burden of disease. The dollars we are talking about in today’s drug pricing debate may eventually be considered a rounding error compared to what’s at stake in the future.”

The Regeneron executives said coming up with and developing new innovative treatments for major diseases is not an easy undertaking. Despite the amount of money invested and the number of talented scientists working on potential treatments, Yancopoulos and Schleifer said there are only a small number of developments that could be considered “first-in-class” treatments each year. Without innovative medications to treat the growing medical concerns related to dementia, oncology or cardiovascular issues, it may be a losing battle for potential treatments.  

The two stressed the need for more people to enter the various professional scientific fields in order to spur the development of new treatments for multiple diseases. Those who do venture into the sciences require financial support through investments in early stage research. They argued that the “best young minds” need to be encouraged to pursue the sciences and be supported by a society that “celebrates, supports, invests in, and rewards their efforts to use the power of science to solve our world’s most important challenges – from healthcare to climate change.”

“We believe a culture that reveres science, that celebrates and rewards major advances, and that provides incentives for true innovation is our only hope for the future,” Yancopoulos and Schleifer said.

While companies should engage in responsible pricing of their medications, which the two Regeneron executives pointed to some of their own pricing measures, they argued that the higher prices people complain about are tied to the patent system. Those patents are only limited to a handful of years, the Regeneron executives said. Schleifer and Yancopoulos go a bit further, pointing to the Founding Fathers of the United States as promoters of patents. They said the Founders established the patent system in the Constitution as “an essential means to promote the innovation necessary to sustain a thriving society.”

While the price of drugs is important to people, there is a cost to innovation, which is also important, the Regeneron executives said. In their piece, Yancopoulos and Schleifer pointed to some of the investments that Regeneron is making into its R&D efforts, including the construction of a big data health records resource of more than 500,000 people, and the $100 million the company spends on its annual Regeneron Science Talent Search for high school students.

The urgent need for innovation in the sciences is why the idea of drug pricing should not be the main focus of the conversation in the pharma industry. A sole focus on price and the ultimate ridiculing of the industry will likely cause bright future scientists who could develop a cure for diseases to choose another profession and lose that potential societal benefit, they argued.

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