Last week, President Joe Biden announced the re-launch of his "Cancer Moonshot" initiative, a project he created in 2016 while serving as Vice President in the Obama administration. The ambitious effort aims to "end cancer as we know it today" by, among other things, halving the death rate from the disease by 2047.
That goal is laudable.
It will also be impossible to achieve if the president continues to make prescription drug price controls a top administration priority.
The only way to spur the kind of rapid, large-scale medical innovation the president envisions is with a market-based drug-research ecosystem that rewards breakthroughs.
The president’s proposed price control scheme would destroy that ecosystem in short order.
There's plenty of reason to be hopeful about the future of cancer research.
A study published just last week in the journal Nature, for instance, found that a new immunotherapy effectively cured a certain form of leukemia in two early recipients.
In two papers published in November, researchers at Princeton showed encouraging progress in finding drugs that target the MTDH gene, which is "important for most major human cancers, not important for normal cells, and . . . can be eliminated with no obvious side effects," according to Yibin Kang, one of the authors of the papers.
Then there's the mRNA technology behind some of the COVID-19 vaccines, which could soon lead to effective vaccines for a range of cancers.
So the idea that cancer deaths might be cut in half over the next 25 years isn't necessarily far-fetched.
But this level of medical progress will not continue if the Democrats' proposals for price controls on prescription drugs become law.
President Biden's Build Back Better Act would give the Secretary of Health and Human Services the ability to demand lower prices for drugs purchased through Medicare. It would also extract massive payments from pharmaceutical firms that raise a drug's price at a rate faster than inflation.
These reforms could cause drug companies to think twice before selling their wares in the United States.
That's precisely what’s happened in foreign countries that impose price controls.
Of the 113 new cancer medicines launched by drug companies between 2011 and 2020, fewer than half were available in Germany and the United Kingdom within the first year. Only one-third were on offer to patients in Canada, and just one in five in France.
American patients, by contrast, had access to 90 percent of these medicines in their first year after launch.
It should come as no surprise, then, that Americans are considerably less likely to die from cancer than patients in countries with price controls. The death rate from cancer in the United States was 185 per 100,000 people in 2020. In the United Kingdom, it was nearly 265 per 100,000. In France, it was 284 per 100,000, and in Germany, 300 per 100,000.
If President Biden is serious about slashing cancer mortality rates, copying the policies of European nations with higher cancer death rates is one of the worst things he could do.
Price controls do more than cut off access to existing medicines. They also destroy incentives for developing newer, more effective cancer treatments. The United States has led the world in drug innovation for decades. Today, more than half of global investment in drug research and development happens at American firms.
This dominance is made possible by a market-based system that incentivizes breakthroughs. Investing billions of dollars in an untested medical technology only makes sense if there's a chance to earn back that investment should a medicine prove safe and effective.
If the government can step in and dictate how much a company can charge for a new treatment, cure, or vaccine, the economics of drug development will break down.
Investors will move their money to less risky projects. And many of the promising advances in cancer care we can see on the horizon will never materialize.
If cancer research makes historic strides in the next quarter-century, it will be the consequence of a private drug market that rewards innovation.
Instead of threatening to dismantle that market through price controls, President Biden should let scientists and entrepreneurs do their jobs.
Sally C. Pipes is president, CEO, and the Thomas W. Smith fellow in healthcare policy at the Pacific Research Institute. Her latest book is "False Premise, False Promise: The Disastrous Reality of Medicare for All," (Encounter Books 2020). Follow her on Twitter @sallypipes. Read Sally Pipes' Reports — More Here.
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