A New Threat to the Race for a Cancer Cure

Public and private investments made in cancer research in recent decades are paying dividends — with interest — as today’s revolutionary therapies build on yesterday’s breakthroughs. Doctors and patients have more tools than ever to help people with cancer live longer. The last thing public policymakers should want to do is stall all this progress.

Yet that is what could happen: The current debate includes proposals that could change the incentives for biopharmaceutical companies to innovate and transform cancer treatment — and save lives.

Recent data shows public and private investments made in cancer therapy have led to dramatic breakthroughs. This year, the American Cancer Society reported that the overall cancer mortality rate from 1991 to 2018 declined by 31 percent.

We have seen the greatest impact on patients in the types of cancer where there has been the most innovation — as measured by new medicines. In November 2020, research in the Journal of Medical Economics showed that the availability of new oncology medicines in the 15 most common tumor types were associated with 1.3 million fewer cancer deaths from 2000 to 2016.

This means more than 1 million people were able to work, raise their children and follow their dreams because of medicines available today that weren’t available a generation ago.

Also, the National Cancer Institute looked at the sharp drop in mortality from non-small-cell lung cancer between 2013 and 2016, concluding that “a reduction in incidence along with treatment advances — particularly approvals for and use of targeted therapies” was likely responsible.

Given the success at translating research into lives saved, which President Joe Biden discussed in early March at a bipartisan White House summit, policymakers should be debating how to maintain — if not accelerate — a trend that has returned immense health gains.

But legislators in Congress and in state capitals are talking about policies that would put those health gains at risk.

Both Republicans and Democrats have proposed importing price controls from other countries, policies that allow politicians to decide what medicines are worth and which diseases are worth investing in. Research shows this price regulation reduces incentives for biomedical research and could have a devastating effect on the innovation needed to find groundbreaking cures.

While it is true that other nations do not pay their fair share of drug development costs, we can and should use existing trade enforcement tools – and build new ones – so that they will in the future.

What will importing foreign price controls mean for patients? Here’s what the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network, the nation’s leading cancer advocacy organization, said about the potential: “Imposing such significant changes — especially in such a short timeframe — could mean some cancer medications are not available, and patients are unable to get essential care.”

Today, American patients have greater access to new therapies compared to other countries: 95 percent of oncology medicines launched between 2011 and 2017 are available in the United States, compared to 75 percent in the United Kingdom and 51 percent in Japan. Implementing price controls in the United States could deny tomorrow’s patients new treatments and cures.

Furthermore, these policies would likely fail to reduce the growing burden of out-of-pocket costs for Americans, especially older adults. More than half of all new cancer diagnoses are among people ages 65 and older, but many seniors struggle to access cancer medications because Medicare does not limit out-of-pocket drug costs.

There is a bipartisan consensus to help fix this by capping out-of-pocket spending for Medicare patients. It was a core feature of Biden’s campaign platform as well as in Republican-sponsored bills in Congress.

The consequences become more real as we think about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the scale of the impact on cancer patients is still unknown, some experts are predicting that we’ll see substantial increases in avoidable cancer mortality rates as a result of delays in cancer care and screening in the pandemic’s early days.

We cannot afford to go back. Just five years ago, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention predicted cancer deaths were about to overtake deaths from heart disease, historically the largest killer of Americans. But that milestone still hasn’t been reached. Thankfully, death rates for both diseases have fallen, but the deaths from cancer have declined more rapidly.

This should mean a more urgent push for smart policies that incentivize innovation while addressing affordability concerns and rewarding high-value treatments, helping to ensure that the American public can reap the benefits from a new, even more exciting generation of cancer medicines.


Jon Selib is the senior vice president of global policy at Pfizer.

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