A drug called Trastuzumab is considered essential for the treatment of HER2-positive breast cancer by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Trastuzumab is manufactured by Roche, a pharmaceutical company, and it currently costs R200 000 in the public health sector, and R500 000 in the private health sector, a price that few South African women can easily afford. Roche is being called upon by protesters and Treatment Action Campaign (TAC) to drop the price of this drug.

Groundup reports that the price of a course of this life-saving drug (in the public sector) could drop from over R200 000 to R3 500 with generic competition. However, Roche’s extended patent period, which prevents other manufacturers from making cheaper versions, has made the current price unaffordable for most South Africans. This has resulted in many women with breast cancer being denied access to medication they desperately need. According to TAC campaign manager Lotti Rutter, ‘The government, which runs the public health service, does not want to procure the drug because it is so expensive.’

At a protest outside Roche’s Johannesburg office in February, Tulani Daki described his mother’s death after being diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer. He was quoted as saying, ‘How many women must die because of the greed of Roche?… My mother was not rich and just because of that she was denied access to the required treatment.’

The pharmaceutical company has claimed that it is engaging with stakeholders, such as the Department of Health, regarding the protesters’ concerns. However, negotiations have been underway for the past year, and no agreement has been reached yet.

News24 reported on June 15 that The Competition Commission announced this week that it will be investigating three of the largest pharmaceutical companies in the country for allegedly fixing the price of some cancer drugs.