Health

'There's no point giving free cancer drugs to Africa'

Pascal Soriot Image copyright Reuters

Giving out free cancer drugs would not help the poorest parts of Africa, the head of pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca has told the BBC.

Pascal Soriot said "dramatic" progress was being made in treating tumours, and defended the company's pricing policy.

And he said that training doctors, not the cost of drugs, was the biggest issue in the world's poorest countries.

Access to treatment has been one of the key themes of the world's biggest cancer conference.

The annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago heard repeated examples of how cancer care was improving for patients.

And AstraZeneca was just one of the big pharmaceutical companies presenting their latest data - including on its new class of DNA Damage Response (or DDR) inhibitors.

Speaking to the BBC News website, Mr Soriot said: "The treatment of cancer is being transformed at increasingly rapid speed, a few years ago there was not much happening.

"Now it seems that every year, every other year, there is something dramatic happening.

"It's really an exciting time, and patients can really look forward to treatments that will be making massive changes to their treatment."

Image copyright SPL

But these new therapies come at significant cost.

There has been widespread criticism of the pharmaceutical industry, including from groups such as Medicins Sans Frontieres, for pricing the poorest people out of life-saving drugs.

But Mr Soriot, a former vet, said, when it came to cancer drugs, this was unfair.

He said: "In some cases, it's not realistic.

"In some parts of Africa, we could give our products away and it would make no difference

"It is not only a question of medicine, it is a question of infrastructure. Where is the hospital? Where is the doctor?

"One of the things we have to do is educate physicians so the diseases can be diagnosed and treated."

Mr Soriot said high blood pressure was a bigger concern than cancer in Africa and that the company was offering hypertension medicines for "almost nothing" while training people to do blood-pressure screening.

"We have now diagnosed and treated more than 500,000 patients in this pilot programme [in Kenya], and we're expanding it," he said.

But even in countries such as the UK, the cost of new cancer medicines is frequently problematic.

AstraZeneca's drug olaparib was initially rejected for widespread use on the grounds of cost.

So how does Mr Soriot justify the cost of drugs?

"There are tensions, it is a judgment call," he said.

"If we give our products away, in five years, guess what? There are no new products.

"If we overcharge, guess what? It's not going to work either - society will say it cannot pay.

"You're constantly balancing between those different objectives, and getting to the best possible point knowing that there is no perfection and knowing you're going to be criticised because shareholders, or society or someone else is going to be dissatisfied."