THE BLOG

Cancer Patient Lays Bare the Danger of TPP and the "Pharma Bro" Problem

02/11/2016 12:23 pm ET | Updated Feb 12, 2016
  • Lori Wallach Director, Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch

Last week, on World Cancer Day, the fatal greed of Big Pharma was spotlighted in unexpected ways. Smirking "Pharma Bro" Martin Shkreli, who had unapologetically jacked up medicine prices from $13.50 to $750 per tablet, invoked his right against self-incrimination when hauled before Congress in a fraud investigation.

Meanwhile, two cancer patients - Zahara Heckscher and Hannah Lyon - were arrested at the headquarters of the Pharma lobby protesting another unconscionable act of Pharma greed: the 'death sentence' clauses the industry pushed into the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

Doctors Without Borders says that the TPP would be "worst-ever trade agreement for access to medicines." If passed, the TPP would lock in policies that not only allow price gouging, but essentially require all TPP-signatory governments to provide monopoly rights allowing drug companies to charge whatever they want. This would block access to essential life-saving medicines for many people with cancer.

I asked Zahara Heckscher, a mother, writer and breast cancer patient, to share her reasons for getting arrested in protest of the TPP death sentence. Her story is moving and compelling, and illustrates why members of Congress who oppose Shkreli's actions should also oppose the TPP:

I have advanced breast cancer. But I could be a poster child for new medical treatments. Thanks to my involvement in a clinical trial, I feel so good that I work part-time, volunteer on the PTA at my son's school, and bike to my chemo appointments.

I know all too well what a breast cancer diagnosis means without access to these medicines. My mother was diagnosed with breast cancer before targeted cancer drugs were available. She died when I was 11 - less than a year after her diagnosis.

My son is now 10. And my clinical trial won't last forever. That's why I was recently arrested protesting the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The TPP would lock in policies that prevent some patients from accessing life-saving medicines.

One of my current cancer medicines could cost me over $100,000 if I were not in a clinical trial, because the company that produces it has a monopoly on its production. How many other women might benefit from this medicine but can't afford it?

If ratified, the TPP would make this problem worse. It would lock in extended monopolies for many new medicines - above and beyond existing, generous patent protections. Monopolies allow drug companies to charge exorbitantly high prices. The result: patients who can't afford it will be stuck in the bad old days when a cancer diagnosis condemned them to an early and ugly death.

The TPP has a section that would lock in in a five to eight year minimum extra monopoly period for biological medicines - treatments that give hope to so many cancer patients and others with serious illnesses.

It would lock in "evergreening" policies that allow extended patents (and therefore extended monopolies on sales) for merely tweaking treatments regimens for existing drugs, such as extended release pills.

And it would empower foreign pharmaceutical corporations to challenge future price-control measures outside our courts in private, non-democratic tribunals.

If Congress passes the TPP, the net effect of all these provisions would be to delay the production of life-saving generics and biosimilars (generics for biologicals), lock in obscenely high prices, and lock out too many patients from the care they desperately need.

Even if you don't have cancer, you would likely help pay for monopoly drug pricing for people like me through your insurance premiums and taxes.

Pharmaceutical companies claim that extra monopoly protections in the TPP foster innovation. In fact, there's evidence that the opposite is true. When countries were allowed to produce generic HIV medicines, the resulting innovations helped to streamline the production process, reduce prices, and save countless lives. When the Supreme Court nixed a monopoly on BRCA testing, companies innovated and developed cost effective tests.

TPP provisions that incentivize spending money on legal shenanigans (like filing for patent extensions on existing meds) take resources away from developing new life-saving treatments. And let's not forget that many of today's innovative medicines were developed through public funding from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), universities, and private donations.

About one out of eight women in this country will get breast cancer. Members of Congress should look their wives, mothers, sisters, daughters and granddaughters in the eye.

Then they should vote against the TPP.


Zahara Heckscher is a mother, writer, breast cancer patient, and "Cancer Thriver" living in Washington, D.C. Her current treatment includes chemotherapy and palbociclib. She was arrested in Atlanta at the TPP negotiations in 2015, and again in Washington, D.C., on February 4, 2016, World Cancer Day, protesting for access to cancer medicines.

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