An Emerging Yo-Yo Syndrome With Biosimilar Drugs

Competition from Biosimilar drugs poses a threat of a combined revenue loss of estimated US$ 110 billion of those pharma players who are still enjoying market monopoly with patented biologic brands. This is expected to surely happen, in the long run, if the signals picked up from the evolving scenario continue to stay on course.

Simply speaking, generic versions of original biologic drugs are termed as Biosimilars. These are large protein molecules, created from living organisms following complex processes. Thus, it is significantly more expensive to develop and market biosimilar drugs, as compared to any small molecule generic chemical ones. 

Hurdle creation and the core intent: 

Despite these complexities, for quite some time, global original biologic drug players had initiated intense campaign to create tough hurdles in the process of regulatory and marketing approval for biosimilar drugs, predominantly raising safety concerns. A simultaneous campaign was also launched among doctors and the payers in the developed countries, stoking the same fear, to forestall the overall acceptance of biosimilar drugs.

When drug regulators of different countries are solely responsible to ensure patient safety of any drug, why are the global pharma companies, and their trade associations are continually shouting from the roof top expressing concerns in this regards? It is often seen that such campaigns become more intense, when it comes primarily to block or delay the entry of biosimilar, many generic drugs and some IP related issues in a country. Umpteen number of such examples are available from India, Europe, United States and many other countries. Many would agree that in such cases, the core intent is as important as the issue.

I discussed on those hurdle creating campaigns in my article in this Blog, on August 25, 2014, titled, “Scandalizing Biosimilar Drugs With Safety Concerns”. Hence won’t dwell on that again here.

The campaign yielded results:

This campaign of global bio-pharma majors to restrict the entry of lower priced biosimilar drugs into the market, immediately after patent expiry, has been successful to a great extent, so far. Let me now give below a recent example, from credible sources, to vindicate this point.

Although, the world’s number 1 drug in sales – Humira (Adalimumab), with a turnover of US$ 15 Billion in 2015 (IMS Health), is going off patent in December 2016, no biosimilar version of Adalimumab is ready, just yet, to compete with this profit churning blockbuster biologic brand, in the United States. More interestingly, according to another report dated July 14, 2016 of the Wall Street Journal (WSJ), even on the verge of its product patent expiration this year, U.S. sales of Humira rose 32 percent to US$ 2.2 billion in the first quarter this year, with over 16 percent jump in its prescription volume.

It is worth noting, Humira was first approved in 2002, and has long been one of the most profitable drugs, globally, contributing around 60 percent of Abbvie’s total revenue even in the last year.

The industry may well argue, in a situation like this, how can a pharma company possibly decide to remain within the ambit of just patent protection, even if it leads to sacrificing other stakeholders’ interest? That’s a ‘business ethics’ issue, and is beyond the scope of this article.

The beginning of a yo-yo syndrome:

At the very outset, let me mention that the term ‘yo-yo syndrome’ has been coined to refer to something that moves up and down quickly, or something that changes repeatedly between one level and another.

Keeping this into perspective, some of the big bio-pharma companies, such as, Amgen, which have been, reportedly, trying hard to block the on-time entry of biosimilar drugs, through litigations and lobbying, could stand as good examples in this area.

For instance, Amgen, on the one hand, seem to be vigorously shielding its over US$10 billion of annual biologic sales from the biosimilar competition through powerful lobbying. Whereas, on the other, it commenced developing its own biosimilar drugs, to reap a rich harvest from the available opportunities.

According to an Associated Press report on July 12, 2016, a panel of Food and Drug Administration advisers of the United States has voted unanimously in favor of Amgen’s version of AbbVie’s Humira. While not binding, the recommendation could help the USFDA approval of the knockoff drug.

According to reports, the companies now working on Humira biosimilars, include Novartis, Mylan and Baxter.

India did it, but a tough road ahead:

On December 9, 2014, international media flashed across the world a great news item from the Indian pharma industry: “The first biosimilar of the world’s top-selling medicine Humira (adalimumab) of AbbVie has been launched in India by Zydus Cadila.” That said, let me hasten to add that Humira does not have a valid product patent protection in India.

Yet another good news is, according to a Press Release of Biocon dated July 15, 2016, its India made Insulin – Glargine was launched in Japan on the same day by its partner FUJIFILM Pharma Co., Ltd. (FFP).

These are excellent developments, and music to many ears. However, on the flip side, intense legal battle on various regulatory grounds against the Indian biosimilar drug players, by the makers of original biologic to protect their own turf of market monopoly, has also commenced with associated acrimony.

Earlier, the Swiss drug major – Roche had objected to Biocon’s referring to Herceptin at an international scientific conference, related to clinical trial results of its own ‘biosimilar’ version Herclon (trastuzumab).

On April 2016, responding to Roche’s complaint, the Delhi High Court ordered changes to the packaging labels of the brands sold by Biocon, and other bio-pharma companies in India, such as, Reliance Life Sciences and Mylan. The court also raised questions about the DCGI’s approval processes for biosimilars, and restrained the companies from using Roche’s data related to the manufacturing process, safety, efficacy and tests.  

More recently, this issue between Roche and Biocon, over breast cancer drug trastuzumab has reportedly taken another acrimonious turn with both the companies approaching the Delhi High Court on charges of contempt of court.

Roche reportedly also alleged contempt over Biocon using the name ‘Herceptin’ in the approval process of its trastuzumab drug in the United States. According to reports, Biocon is currently conducting Phase III clinical trials for marketing approval of its trastuzumab in the U.S.

Thus, to carve out a niche in the biosimilar space of the world, Indian pharma has made some good progress. Alongside, taking note of many contemporary factors and development in this area, a lurking apprehension too did creep in. It raises an awkward and uncomfortable question – do the Indian companies have pockets deep enough to overcome the expensive legal and regulatory challenges thrown by the global biologic drug makers to protect their market monopoly status for expensive drugs, much longer than what they deserve?

Let me keep my fingers crossed.

Critical global speed-bumps for biosimilar entry:

Besides, many other hurdles, as I highlighted in my article of August 25, 2014, the intricate patent shield beyond original patent expiry, is a major speed bump for biosimilar drugs’ smooth global market entry. 

Maintaining the same example of Humira, a well crafted patent-shield strategy was implemented to extend market monopoly of this brand, at least for another decade. Although, the main patent of Humira expires in December 2016, it is reportedly well shielded, at least, with 70 other patents till 2027, as many reports indicate.

This is possible because, according to a January 19 2016 report by Bloomberg, the U.S. patent office in the same month rejected Amgen’s effort to knock out two patents on AbbVie’s anti-inflammatory bestseller Humira. Amgen hoped to get its Humira competitor to market by 2017. This is a bad news for other biosimilar drug makers too.

Nevertheless, the good news is, in May 2016, the Patent Trial And Appeal Board (PTAB) announced that it would embark on a review of Coherus’ challenge of Humira’s ’135 methods patent. Experts believe, even if it the PTAB upturns Humira’s IP shield, AbbVie could appeal, which could take another year or so.

Recent status:

So far, after the biosimilar guidelines were put in place for the first time in the United States, a Novartis version of Amgen’s Neupogen, got USFDA approval in March 2015, only after so many delays and protracted litigations. Novartis is also trying to to do the same for Amgen’s Enbrel. Pfizer too won the U.S drug regulator’s approval in April 2016 for a version of Johnson & Johnson’s Remicade, but the product is still not available for sale.

Currently, some constituents of Big Pharma, such as, Amgen, Novartis and Pfizer have started warming up for manufacturing copycat versions of blockbuster original biologic drugs of other companies.

High quality biosimilars:

These new biosimilars are of top quality. Even USFDA could not find any meaningful differences in the key parameters, such as, efficacy, safety, potency and purity, between the original biologic drugs and their biosimilar versions.

According to a July 12, 2016 Bloomberg report, in several cases USFDA finds the clinical results of biosimilar drugs are robust enough to support ‘extrapolation’. This could support approval of these biosimilar drugs for all indications that the original biologic brands treat, without requirement of separate clinical trials for each, facilitating the approval process and accelerating their market entry.

With these developments, the high voltage lobbying campaigns of the original biologic makers, and their trade associations, both to the drug regulators and doctors, are expected to lose steam, if not ultimately die down altogether. 

However, the protracted and fierce legal battles of the originators, creating various intricate patent shields, to enjoy a brand monopoly for a much longer period, are expected to continue, if not turn fiercer.

The question of price advantage with biosimilars:

Currently the cost advantage provided by the biosimilar drugs over the original biologics, does not come anywhere near to what we see for small molecule generic drugs, post patent expiry. 

For example, Zarexio of Novartis has been priced 15 percent less than the original Neupogen of Amgen. It is generally believed that in the united states this difference would continue to be around 15 to 30 percent, in the near future. Whereas in Europe, the difference is higher, as the governments regulate their prices.

In India too, the difference in the pricing trend is currently, more or less, similar. 

Nonetheless, the above report of Bloomberg had quoted the global CEO of Novartis Joe Jimenez saying that biosimilar drugs would eventually cost 75 percent less than the original biologics. 

Let’s hope so.

Conclusion:

The powerful constituents of Big Pharma who decided to delay, if not stall the entry of biosimilar drugs for vested interest, have now started adopting a dual strategy. They did not have any other choice either, after President Obama’s fulfillment of his election promise with the ‘Affordable Care Act’, which, among others, facilitated charting the regulatory pathway for entry of biosimilar drugs in the United States, for the first time ever. 

Thus, on the one the one hand, these companies continued crafting robust patent-shields to extend market monopolies, even beyond the original patent expiries, through protracted and complicated litigations. While, on the other, started moving with great speed to develop biosimilar versions of the original blockbuster biologic drugs of other players, as they go off patent. This is mainly to cash-in the golden opportunities, which otherwise would go to different players.

India has made an entry into this space, but would still require a lot to do, including winning the expensive legal battles, in order to be recognized as a global force to reckon with, in the biosimilar segment.

To facilitate rapid growth, and universal acceptance of biosimilar drugs, for patients’ interest across the world, it will be interesting to follow the spread of the ‘yo-yo syndrome’ of the original biologic drug makers, as we move on.

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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