Viagra: will branded or generic versions make a difference?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABy Colin Cable, Pharmaceutical Science Information Adviser

Viagra loses its patent in the UK today. This means that Pfizer, the company that first made Viagra, will no longer have exclusive rights to its production. Instead, other companies will be able to manufacture and sell generic versions of this medicine.

Viagra is the brand name that Pfizer use for their medicine that contains the drug with the generic name sildenafil citrate.

Viagra was launched in 1998 and has been prescribed to millions of men worldwide for impotence, It has become the most counterfeited medicine ever.

When a pharmaceutical company discovers a new drug, they take out a patent which gives them exclusive rights to it for up to 20 years. However, it can take up to 15 years from first discovering a new drug molecule to it being available as a medicine, with estimated total costs of this process being up to £1 billion.

This means out of a total patent life of 20 years, a pharmaceutical company may have as little as 5 years left to recoup all the costs involved in getting the medicine on the shelves before competitors come on the scene and start producing their own versions.

So will other versions of Viagra work as well as the original? Are branded and generic medicines the same?

The short answer is yes. The authorities which regulate medicines strictly control generic medicines to ensure they are equivalent to the original branded product. Generics must contain the same drug at the same strength, the same dosage form (e.g. a tablet), and must be taken in the same way (e.g. by mouth) as the branded product. They must deliver the same amount of active drug and at the same rate as the branded product and produce the same effect. However, the colour, shape, flavour and inactive ingredients of generic medicines may differ from the branded product and from each other.

Generic medicines are cheaper than the branded product because the manufacturers have not had the expense of discovering and developing a new drug and marketing a new medicine. The substantial money invested in research, development and marketing has already been spent by the manufacturer of the initial branded medicine. This means medicines become cheaper for the NHS and over 80% of medicines prescribed are now the generic version.

When you buy medicines over-the-counter (OTC), there are usually several branded as well as generic products available. For example, you can buy paracetamol as a well-known branded product, or as a supermarket own version. All OTC medicines are subject to the same regulatory authority controls and the use of a brand name for many OTC products is generally done for advertising and brand loyalty purposes.

In rare cases it is important you stay on a branded medicine, because sometimes small changes in the way a drug is absorbed by the body can have a significant effect on your health. For example, patients taking a drug called ciclosporin, which is used to suppress the immune system, should always have their medicine prescribed by brand name otherwise there can be changes in the drug level in the blood which can cause health problems.

If you are worried about swapping from Viagra, or any other branded medicine, to a generic one, you can speak to a pharmacist in a confidential consultation area where you won’t be overheard. Pharmacists are the experts in medicines and can answer any questions you might have about them.