In praise of me-too drugs

Today’s Op-Ed in The Financial Times defends me-too drugs:

There is a tendency among the medical fraternity to tut-tut about the proliferation of drugs as unproductive and unnecessary. Marcia Angell, a former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine, argues in her book The Truth About Drug Companies that me-too drugs are symptomatic of Big Pharma’s intellectual bankruptcy.

Dr Angell says there is "almost no evidence of price competition in the me-too business" and trials "almost never compare me-too drugs with one another for the same condition at similar doses". One or two drugs would do: "I know of no rationale for, say, the seven brand-name Ace inhibitors that are sold to treat high blood pressure and heart failure."

There is something to her critique. One of the attractions of me-too drugs has been that pharmaceuticals companies have been able to market them heavily in the US – spending $3.3bn (£1.7bn) on direct-to-consumer advertising in 2003, and giving $16bn of free samples to doctors. This makes them look more like branded consumer goods companies than research-based scientific organisations.

But there are already signs of drug proliferation leading to falling prices. In Europe, the existence of alternative treatments has helped governments to cap prices. Pfizer is fighting a German proposal to pay the same for all cholesterol drugs, cutting the sum it gets for Lipitor by a third. Even in the US, drug companies increasingly have to compete to get their drugs on to approved prescription lists.

That means direct comparisons on both price and effectiveness. Despite the industry’s traditional resistance to "head-to-head" trials, they are becoming more commonplace. Bristol-Myers Squibb financed a head-to-head study of Pravachol and Lipitor in an effort to displace the market leader, only to find this year that Lipitor worked better.

…This may all sound terribly wasteful to a doctor, but it is the same thing that is good for consumers in other markets: open competition. The problem until now has not been too much of it, but too little. The last thing that a patient should want is a choice of only one drug. As the Vioxx withdrawal shows, me-too pills may inspire little affection, but they would be missed if they were not there.

Why have me-too drugs been so prevalent?  Are they an inefficient form of product mimicry?  An artifact of bad patent or FDA policies?  The long-run path to affordable medical care?  I don’t have the expertise to answer these questions, so in my spare time I bug Alex to write more about them.


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