Cheap Viagra – generic versus branded drugs

Posted on Wednesday, July 31st, 2013

Things are looking up this month (July 2013) for the hundreds of thousands of British men who depend on Viagra. The cost of the drug is set to plummet as manufacturer Pfizer’s patent expires and rival companies release cheaper generic versions offering the same benefits, but at a fraction of the price.

In my experience people often prefer branded drugs and doctors are used to having to deal with complaints when they try and switch patients to a cheaper generic version, but hopefully the introduction of generic sildenafil (the active ingredient in Viagra) will help change that.

It will be a year of two before the market settles properly but the price could level out at as a little as tenth of what many men are having to pay for their Viagra today (as much as £11 a tablet on one popular online pharmacy). But will the £1 version be as good?

In a word, yes. Indeed the first generic version of sildenafil to hit the market is made by the original manufacturer Pfizer – a move that neatly sums up the absurdity of brand loyalty when it comes to medicines. Put simply, generic drugs don’t only have to contain the same active ingredients, provide the same medicinal benefits and be manufactured to the same high standards as the original, they are often made by the very same company. Indeed the only thing that may differ (other than the price) is the packaging.

Around two thirds of all medicines currently prescribed on the NHS are generics saving at least 10 billion pounds a year in England and Wales alone. And the savings don’t just apply to prescription medicines. Why buy branded paracetamol or antihistamines when you can get a non-branded (or “own brand”) version of exactly the same thing for a fraction of the price?

And, unlike prescription only drugs, there is no justification for the premium charged by branded OTC medicines. Any generic manufacturer can make paracetamol and the premium charged for some brands simply reflects clever marketing. Pfizer on the other hand charges a high price for Viagra because it discovered the drug, spent a fortune developing it, and only had a decade or so to profit before the patent expired and everyone joined the bandwagon.

Pharmaceutical companies take out a patent (lasting 20 years in the UK) as soon as they discover a drug, and long before they know if it is actually going to work (most will never go into production). It typically takes ten years and hundreds of millions of pounds to develop and bring each new drug to market leaving a further decade of exclusivity to recoup your investment and make some profit.

Once the patent expires other manufacturers can start producing your drug, but they don’t have your initial R&D costs, which is why generics are so much cheaper (typically anywhere between 20 -90% of the cost of the branded version).

GPs are under constant pressure to prescribe generically and to switch patients from branded drugs whenever patents expire. And, with some notable exceptions – such as some types of slow release blood pressure treatments and painkillers –the generic versions should work just as well as the branded ones. Sadly, it’s not always that simple.

Patients noticing a change in packaging, and/or the colour and size of their pill/capsule, and aware that their doctor has made the switch to save money, often experience a “reverse” placebo effect and complain that the new version doesn’t work as well.

This type of resistance to generic medicines costs the NHS a fortune, but the changes in the Viagra market should be a lesson to us all. After all, would you pay £11 a tablet for branded Viagra when you can have the same drug for a £1 a go?

Ah yes, I hear you cry, but most men can’t get Viagra on the NHS so have to pay it for themselves, and it is different when you have to dip into your own pocket. But is it? Who picks up the tab for the NHS drugs bill? We all do.

 

• Generic drugs are just as tightly regulated as original branded versions – they contain the same active ingredient and have the same medicinal benefits and side effects, but they may contain different colouring and binding agents.

• The average generic prescription costs the NHS under £4, while the average branded version is closer to £20

• For more information on generic medicines visit www.britishgenerics.co.uk

 

2 Responses to “Cheap Viagra – generic versus branded drugs”

  1. Rene wyndham says:

    Have you done any Radio 4 programmes about cellulitis and oedmia? I know I am not alone in having had several bouts and surely modern medicine has by now a better solution than taking courses of antibiotics? Also also are there advances ring oedmia, apart from lymphatic massage? Perhaps you have a blog on the latest developments for this?

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