'Cynical manipulation' behind Keytruda flip-flop

'Cynical manipulation' behind Keytruda flip-flop

Labour health spokesperson Annette King has accused the Government of "cynical manipulation" over Pharmac's flip-flop on a melanoma drug.

In December last year the Government's drug-buying agency said there wasn't enough evidence to show pembrolizumab helped fight melanoma. But on Tuesday it announced a two-month trial of the drug, marketed by creators Merck Sharpe and Dohme as Keytruda, with the aim of having it fully funded from September.

It comes just days before funding for an alternative melanoma drug -- nivolumab, also known as Opdivo -- comes into force.

Ms King says although she's delighted Pharmac is giving Keytruda a chance to prove itself, it comes too late for some patients.

"Six months has passed when people could have had this drug and they could have stopped having to mortgage their house and [use crowdfunding website] Givealittle," she told Paul Henry.

"Pharmac and the minister said Keytruda wasn't good enough, it didn't stack up, so they decided to fund another drug."

In the meantime, melanoma patients like Amanda Vella have died. Ms Vella's insurance company coughed up more than $20,000 to pay for a course of Keytruda earlier this year, but only once doctors had deemed her cancer was terminal.

The Government resisted calls to override Pharmac and fund Keytruda itself, Health Minister Jonathan Coleman saying there was no evidence it was the best choice, and the company which makes Opdivo offering Pharmac a better deal.

Keytruda had strong backing from both doctors and patients, with one oncologist calling it the biggest breakthrough in melanoma treatment in decades.

Ms King believes the public campaign to get Keytruda publicly funded is precisely why it was rejected.

"They didn't want to have this drug because it would have looked like they had failed, so they funded Opdivo, and within a month we're told they're able to fund Keytruda. I just think it's terrible politics and very bad health decision-making."

She says Pharmac's newfound enthusiasm for Keytruda proves the decision to reject it last year had nothing to do with its efficacy at all - it was all about politics and money.

Some oncologists however say there's nothing wrong with Opdivo.

"Most clinicians would regard these two drugs as virtually identical," Cancer Society medical director Chris Jackson said in May.

"Chemically, they're very similar and there's very little [difference] between the two."