Drugmakers are abandoning cheap generics, and now U.S. cancer patients can’t get meds


On Nov. 22, three Food and Drug Administration inspectors arrived at the sprawling Intas Pharmaceuticals plant south of Ahmedabad, India, and found hundreds of trash bags full of shredded documents tossed into a garbage truck. Over the next 10 days, the inspectors assessed what looked like a systematic effort to conceal quality problems at the plant, which provided more than half of the U.S. supply of generic cisplatin and carboplatin, two cheap drugs used to treat as many as 500,000 new cancer cases every year.

Seven months later, doctors and their patients are facing the unimaginable: In California, Virginia, and everywhere in between, they are being forced into grim contemplation of untested rationing plans for breast, cervical, bladder, ovarian, lung, testicular, and other cancers. Their decisions are likely to result in preventable deaths.

Cisplatin and carboplatin are among scores of drugs in shortage, including 12 other cancer drugs, ADHD pills, blood thinners, and antibiotics. COVID-hangover supply chain issues and limited FDA oversight are part of the problem, but the main cause, experts agree, is the underlying weakness of the generic drug industry. Made mostly overseas, these old but crucial drugs are often sold at a loss or for little profit. Domestic manufacturers have little interest in making them, setting their sights instead on high-priced drugs with plump profit margins.

The problem isn’t new, and that’s particularly infuriating to many clinicians. President Joe Biden, whose son Beau died of an aggressive brain cancer, has focused his Cancer Moonshot on discovering cures – undoubtedly expensive ones. Indeed, existing brand-name cancer drugs often cost tens of thousands of dollars a year.

But what about the thousands of patients today who can’t get a drug like cisplatin, approved by the FDA in 1978 and costing as little as $6 a dose?

“It’s just insane,” said Mark Ratain, MD, a cancer doctor and pharmacologist at the University of Chicago. “Your roof is caving in, but you want to build a basketball court in the backyard because your wife is pregnant with twin boys and you want them to be NBA stars when they grow up?”

“It’s just a travesty that this is the level of health care in the United States of America right now,” said Stephen Divers, MD, an oncologist in Hot Springs, Ark., who in recent weeks has had to delay or change treatment for numerous bladder, breast, and ovarian cancer patients because his clinic cannot find enough cisplatin and carboplatin. Results from a survey of academic cancer centers released June 7 found 93% couldn’t find enough carboplatin and 70% had cisplatin shortages.

“All day, in between patients, we hold staff meetings trying to figure this out,” said Bonny Moore, MD, an oncologist in Fredericksburg, Virginia. “It’s the most nauseous I’ve ever felt. Our office stayed open during COVID; we never had to stop treating patients. We got them vaccinated, kept them safe, and now I can’t get them a $10 drug.”

The cancer clinicians KFF Health News interviewed for this story said that, given current shortages, they prioritize patients who can be cured over later-stage patients, in whom the drugs generally can only slow the disease, and for whom alternatives – though sometimes less effective and often with more side effects – are available. But some doctors are even rationing doses intended to cure.

Isabella McDonald, then a junior at Utah Valley University, was diagnosed in April with a rare, often fatal bone cancer, whose sole treatment for young adults includes the drug methotrexate. When Isabella’s second cycle of treatment began June 5, clinicians advised that she would be getting less than the full dose because of a methotrexate shortage, said her father, Brent.

“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,” he said. “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.”

Mr. McDonald stressed that he didn’t blame the staffers at Intermountain Health who take care of Isabella. The family – his other daughter, Cate, made a TikTok video about her sister’s plight – were simply stunned at such a basic flaw in the health care system.

At Dr. Moore’s practice, in Virginia, clinicians gave 60% of the optimal dose of carboplatin to some uterine cancer patients during the week of May 16, then shifted to 80% after a small shipment came in the following week. The doctors had to omit carboplatin from normal combination treatments for patients with recurrent disease, she said.

On June 2, Dr. Moore and colleagues were glued to their drug distributor’s website, anxious as teenagers waiting for Taylor Swift tickets to go on sale – only with mortal consequences at stake.

She later emailed KFF Health News: “Carboplatin did NOT come back in stock today. Neither did cisplatin.”

Doses remained at 80%, she said. Things hadn’t changed 10 days later.


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