Leaked internal emails appear to show employees at one of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies calling for “celebration” over price hikes of cancer drugs, an investigation has revealed.
Staff at Aspen Pharmacare reportedly plotted to destroy stocks of life-saving medicines during a price dispute with the Spanish health service in 2014.
After purchasing five different cancer drugs from British firm GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), the company tried to sell the medicines in Europe for up to 40 times their previous price, reported The Times.
In 2013, the price of one pack of a chemotherapy drug called busulfan, used to treat leukaemia, rose from £5.20 to £65.22 in England and Wales, according to the newspaper.
The other four drugs, including leukeran, also used by leukaemia patients, and melphalan, for skin and ovarian cancers, also became up to four times more expensive.
Price rises for generic cancer drugs, such as those acquired by Aspen, cost the NHS in England around £380m a year for prescriptions dispensed outside hospitals, the European Cancer Congress has estimated.
In a confidential email published by The Times, an Aspen employee appeared to write: “We’ve signed new reimbursement and price agreement successfully: price increases are basically on line with European target prices (Leukeran, a bit higher!)... Let’s celebrate!”
When bargaining over drug prices in Spain, the pharmaceutical giant is said to have threatened to stop selling the cancer treatments unless the Health minister agreed to price rises of up to 4,000 per cent, reported Spanish daily El Confidencial Digital at the time.
Now another leaked email appears to reveal that staff at Aspen discussed destroying their supplies of the drug in the row.
The company, which is based in South Africa and has its European headquarters in Dublin, bought the five drugs from GSK in 2009 as part of a deal worth £273m.
The price increases were made possible by a loophole that allows drug companies to change the price of medicines if they are no longer branded with the same name.
The Department of Health has said it plans to cut generic drug costs after researchers said there has been a sharp increase in the price of cancer drugs in the last five years, leading to their use being restricted in the NHS.
The loophole is designed to make drugs cheaper once ther patents have expired – but if drug companies have no competition, they are free to rise prices as well.
It is “worrying” that several drug companies have increased the price of cancer treatment, a senior pharmacology research fellow at the University of Liverpool, told the BBC.
A ruling by the Italian competition watchdog found Aspen had taken an “aggressive” approach to negotiations in the country.
According to The Times’s investigation, the company said it would stop supplying Italy with the drugs in October 2013 if authorities did not agree to price rises of up to 2,100 per cent in three months.
The Independent has contacted Aspen for comment.
A Department of Health spokesperson said new laws were being introduced this year allowing the Government to “take action against excessive price rises on unbranded generic medicines.”
“No pharmaceutical company should exploit the NHS,” they said, reported MailOnline.
“We are working closely with the Competition and Markets Authority on unwarranted price rises of unbranded generic medicines, and where companies have breached competition law, we will seek damages and invest that money in the NHS."