Friday, 29 July 2011

The Impact of expiring Viagra patents on consumers

Pfizer is the pharmaceutical corporate giant behind Viagra, the globally popular and successful erectile dysfunction medication, which has earned Pfizer billions of dollars since it was first marketed in 1998. Over the last 13 years Pfizer has enjoyed legal protection from copycat generic drugs thanks to patents on Viagra and its active ingredient Sildenafil, which have kept competition low and prices for Viagra high.


Now Pfizer’s patents are starting to expire. Its Brazilian patent expired in June 2010 and the patent for New Zealand expired this month, whilst the US patent will expire in March 2012 (pending a trial). The sales figures of Viagra are expected to take a hit as increased competition from generic versions of the drug legally enter the market but what will be the impact on the consumer?

The first obvious answer is that falling prices is a good thing for the consumer. The high price of Viagra and other erectile dysfunction drugs, such as Cialis and Levitra, has meant that access to drugs for a condition that affects 1 in 10 men worldwide has been limited to those who can afford it. A significant drop in the price will bring it within financial reach for many more men.

However, in New Zealand Dr Bert Rauber has raised concern that cheaper anti-impotence medication may have an adverse effect on health. He is concerned that lower prices will cause increased demand and put pressure on GPs to prescribe the cheaper medicines without first conducting testing for potential underlying causes.

“The concern is that if more are asking for it they won’t look at the bigger picture.”  States Dr Rauber, who runs an erectile dysfunction clinic in Hamilton. The bigger picture being that erectile dysfunction is often viewed as an early warning sign of deeper underlying medication conditions, such as diabetes, prostate cancer and heart disease. If it becomes cheaper for doctors to prescribe erectile dysfunction medication then it is possible that the testing for these diseases and the subsequent necessary treatment maybe delayed or missed altogether.

In New Zealand Auckland-based Douglas Pharmaceuticals has already released a cheap generic drug, while Pfizer has offered its own generic, ‘Avigra’.  According to Dr Rauber the price has dropped from $25 to $8 a tablet. The relative affordability may result in more men seeing it as a lifestyle drug with which to improve their sexual prowess in the bedroom rather than because they have genuine erectile dysfunction.

“Now it’s cheaper, there’s going to be a lot of guys running around saying `I want a harder erection’, but they don’t actually have any erectile dysfunction. They have, in their own mind, a poor erection, but it’s subjective isn’t it?” says Dr Rauber.

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