The World Health Organization says the cost of developing new cancer treatments doesn’t seem to justify those drugs’ high prices, as the pharmaceutical industry argues.

The big picture: "The costs of R&D and production may bear little or no relationship to how pharmaceutical companies set prices of cancer medicines,” WHO officials said in a recent research paper.

The report says new cancer treatments have translated into better survival rates, but that high prices are the main factor limiting access to those life-saving drugs.

  • And it sharply contradicts the industry’s argument that those prices are necessary to recoup the cost of developing new drugs — including the money they spend on products that fail.
  • “Pharmaceutical companies set prices according to their commercial goals, with a focus on extracting the maximum amount that a buyer is willing to pay for a medicine,” the report says. “This pricing approach often makes cancer medicines unaffordable, preventing the full benefit of the medicines from being realized.”

The other side: “The report is wrong on the facts and deeply flawed,” a spokeswoman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America said. “The report’s narrow scope fails to properly account for the value that cancer medicines provide to patients, health care systems and societies.”

  • And the WHO report does say that government price-setting doesn’t always work.
  • “In some countries, cost-containment measures ... have resulted in reduced, delayed and even cancelled treatment,” the report says.

By the numbers: Even after accounting for failed clinical trials and other opportunity costs, drug companies saw a median return of $14.50 for every $1 they spent on research and development, the paper says, citing earlier research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

  • By the end of 2017, 5 cancer drugs had each accumulated more than $60 billion in lifetime sales. (The top 3 are all manufactured by Roche, followed by Amgen and Novartis.)

The report also questions whether some new drugs are adding value commensurate with their price.

  • A product that extends a patient’s life by a few weeks or months, for example, means a lot to the patient but perhaps shouldn’t be priced like a bigger breakthrough.

The bottom line: “We’re spending a lot, but maybe we should expect more from those dollars that we’re spending,” said Stacie Dusetzina, a professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.

Go deeper

Poll: Majority of voters say election winner should fill SCOTUS vacancy

President Trump and Judge Amy Coney Barrett. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A majority of voters believe the winner of the next election should fill the Supreme Court vacancy left by the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a new poll from the New York Times and Siena College finds.

Why it matters: President Trump and Senate Republicans have vowed to swiftly confirm his nominee Amy Coney Barrett, in part hoping for a political boost as the conservative base is extremely motivated by issues concerning the court. The poll indicates that moving fast may not help them with voters they also need to win over: women, independents, and college-educated white voters.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

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  4. Health: The long-term pain of the mental health pandemicFewer than 10% of Americans have coronavirus antibodies.
  5. Business: Millions start new businesses in time of coronavirus.
  6. Education: Summer college enrollment offers a glimpse of COVID-19's effect.

How the Supreme Court could decide the election

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

The Supreme Court isn't just one of the most pressing issues in the presidential race — the justices may also have to decide parts of the election itself.

Why it matters: Important election-related lawsuits are already making their way to the court. And close results in swing states, with disputes over absentee ballots, set up the potential for another Bush v. Gore scenario, election experts say.