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Cancer Patients Can’t Get Meds As Drugmakers Drop Cheap Generics

By: Kyle Xu

On Nov. 22, three FDA inspectors came to the Intas Pharmaceuticals plant and found hundreds of trash bags full of documents tossed into a garbage truck. Suspicious, the inspectors assessed the manufacturers' efforts to hide their quality problems. The plant provided more than half of the US supply of generics drugs, cisplatin and carboplatin. Those drugs were used to treat more than 500,000 cancer cases per year.

The drugs cisplatin, carboplatin, and 12 other cancer drugs are in shortage. The supply shortage resulting from the COVID pandemic is not the only problem. Many drug manufacturers have started to stop making cheap generics.

By June 13, the FDA had found 137 drugs in shortage, some of which are crucial meds made by little companies. The Intas Pharmaceuticals plant shut down after the FDA inspection, and prices for the drugs skyrocketed. A bottle of carboplatin available for $30 normally, sold for $185 in May and $345 a week later.

These crucial drugs are often sold at a loss, bringing the seller little profit. So manufacturers do not spend their time making them, instead focusing on drugs that can sell at a high price. However, there are tons of patients to this day who can’t buy a drug like carboplatin because of its scarcity, which used to be $6 per use!

“It’s just a travesty that this is the level of healthcare in the United States of America right now,” said Dr. Stephen Divers, who had to delay treatment for cancer patients because of the drug shortage.

A junior at Utah Valley University, Isabella McDonald, had a type of bone cancer, which could only be treated by the drug methotrexate. But clinicians said that she could only have less than a full dose because of a methotrexate shortage. Her family was stunned at such a basic flaw in the healthcare system.

“They don’t think it will have a negative impact on her treatment, but as far as I am aware, there isn’t any scientific basis to make that conclusion,” said Brent McDonald, the father of Isabella. “As you can imagine, when they gave us such low odds of her beating this cancer, it feels like we want to give it everything we can and not something short of the standard.”

The 2020 CARES Act gave FDA the power to force companies to respond to the drug shortages, but the FDA has not implemented guidance to enforce the provisions. Ratain and his colleague Dr. Satyajit Kosuri called for a creation of a strategic buffer for generic meds, like the Petroleum Reserve, set up in response to the oil crisis.

Selling barrels of oil would probably obtain you enough cash to make two years’ worth of carboplatin and cisplatin.

“It would almost literally be a drop in the bucket.”

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