Pfizer, Roche cancer drug pricing under investigation in South Africa

South Africa's competition commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele (left) on Tuesday announced a probe into cancer drug pricing from Pfizer, Roche and Aspen Pharmacare. Photo credit: Siyasanga Mbambani. Image taken on Nov. 11, 2015.

Two of the world’s top drug companies and a local pharma are in the hot seat in South Africa as competition officials launched a probe into “excessive pricing” on lifesaving cancer meds.

South Africa’s competition commissioner Tembinkosi Bonakele announced Tuesday that his agency would probe pricing on cancer drugs from Roche, Pfizer and Aspen Pharmacare, according to the Competition Commission of South Africa’s official Twitter account. A spokesperson for the agency didn’t immediately respond to confirm the details.

Roche is under investigation for breast cancer drug pricing, according to the commission, while Pfizer’s lung cancer drug pricing is included in the inquiry.

The probe comes at a time when drug pricing has become a contentious issue in the U.S. and patient advocates debate the varying cost of drugs in countries around the world. In announcing the probe, the South African commissioner pointed to patents as a driver of high drug prices, echoing concerns in developing countries such as India.

RELATED: EU officials question 'unjustified' cancer drug pricing from Aspen

Aspen acknowledged the investigation in a Tuesday announcement and said it’s “committed to full and constructive engagement with the Competition Commission in this investigation.” Based in Durban, Aspen said the probe is for “suspected abuse of dominance” in the cancer drug market.

A Roche spokesperson said the company hasn’t received an official notice of the investigation from the South African agency. If that notice does come, Roche “will be cooperating with the authorities and will provide all required information while responding to the potential allegation,” a spokesperson said.

Under South African law, the Department of Health “establishes a universal fixed price” for pharma products, according to Aspen. The company has not raised prices outside of that system, it maintains.

Commissioner Bonakele said the probe will “look at patents and how they get abused,” according to the commission’s official Twitter account. “A perpetual monopoly aided by patents is unlawful,” he continued.

Aspen is already under investigation in Europe for suspected “price gouging” on a handful of cancer meds. European authorities say they have received info that the drugmaker took steep price hikes on several of drugs and threatened to pull its products to get the increases through. In some cases, Aspen actually did remove medicines from the market, according to authorities.

RELATED: Pfizer appeals record fine from U.K. regulator tied to 2,600% drug price hike

Beyond reaffirming its “commitment to fair and open competition in markets in the European Union and around the world,” Aspen said it couldn’t comment on the issue in Europe.

Pfizer and Roche aren’t strangers to scrutiny from competition authorities, either. New York-based Pfizer recently received—and appealed—a record fine in the U.K. tied to a 2,600% price increase on an epilepsy drug sold to the country’s National Health System.

Switzerland’s Roche was hit with €90.5 million in fines from Italian authorities back in 2014 for a scheme with Novartis in which the companies pushed patients toward Lucentis over a cheaper option, Avastin, to treat the same vision problems. Roche and Novartis, its marketing partner, have appealed that fine.

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