Tobeka Daki of South Africa has HER2 positive breast cancer, which is a kind of cancer in which tumor cells have receptors to the human epidermal growth factor or HER2. Daki's cancer could be treated with a drug called trastuzumab, which is manufactured by pharmaceutical major Roche under the brand name Herceptin. But Daki can't afford the drug. She had even petitioned to the South African government for aid to obtain the medicine but her application was turned down.
On Wednesday, Daki and several other women and men under the umbrella of Treatment Action Campaign organised a protest at the AIDS 2016 conference organised by the International Aids Society underway Durban to embarrass Roche for its exorbitant pricing of Herceptin . The campaigners delivered bras to the Roche public relations stall making the demand "don’t booby trap our treatment". Many men and women wore bras, some over their shirts, to protest against the company’s policies which has made it difficult for South African women to access the breast cancer drug.
“Until 2033 the drug is protected by patents making it out of reach for hundreds of women with breast cancer,” said Lotti Rutter, advocacy and campaign manager with Treatment Action Campaign. The cost of annual treatment with trastuzumab is about $34,000 (more than Rs 22 lakhs), the activists said.
“Women cannot afford the drugs and they are dying of breast cancer,” said Rutter. "Four months ago we had a meeting with the company and they had assured us that the prices will come down. Nothing to that effect has happened."
Roche has responded to the protest by saying that the company acknowledges and shares concerns about access to medicines of breast cancer patients in South Africa. In an email to Scroll.in, the company said that it has been in discussions with the South African Department of Health over the last few months about providing Herceptin to all Her2 positive patients who require this medicine in the public sector.
“Crucially, the approach being discussed not only tackles affordability but also seeks to address the many other factors preventing access to care,” said the Roche statement. “Getting this right takes time as there are many details which have to be taken into consideration. But we are confident that the right solution will be reached and we will be able to finalise these discussions in the near future.”
Rutter of Treatment Action Campaign, who was at the protest with "Target Roche" written across her stomach, said that South Africa's regulation of pharmaceuticals should be a little more like India's. “In South Africa, we cannot oppose patents,” she said. "We don’t do parallel imports. What we need are laws like the Indian government has passed."
Roche has not renewed its patent for trastuzumab in India since 2013 and this has made way for other companies like Mylan, Biocon, Zydus and Reliance Lifesciences make their own versions of the drug at slightly discounted prices. Roche initially sold trastuzumab under the brand name Herceptin in India for Rs 120,000 for a 440 milligram vial. Subsequently the price has come down to about Rs 75,000, which is still too expensive for many who need the medicine.