Is Criticizing Pharma Now Just A Fad?

Is criticizing pharma now just a fad of its stakeholders? Fathoming the right answer to this seemingly simple question may not be too easy, either, for some. The task could even be more onerous, especially when the global ‘researched based’ pharma and biotech companies, well chorused by their trade associations, are exerting serious efforts to garner the much required trust of all stakeholders on their ‘patient centric’ focus in the process of transacting business.

This often repeated pledge, as it were, on ‘patient centric’ approach is indeed praiseworthy. There’s no two opinions about it, either. The new found interest of several ‘research-based’ pharma and biologic players to develop less expensive biosimilar drugs, to possibly improve patient access to otherwise expensive biologic medicines, post patent expiry, could well be a reiteration of the same and well publicized vow, of course if not proven otherwise.

A recent example:

In the context of ‘patient-centric’ approach with biosimilar product development by the world’s largest innovative biologic drug makers, let me quote the following recent example.

On September 23, 2016, by a Press Release, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States (US-FDA) announced regulatory approval of Amjevita (adalimumab-atto) as a biosimilar to Humira (adalimumab) for multiple inflammatory diseases. This is the fourth FDA-approved biosimilar, after the new biosimilar pathway became effective in the US. Amjevita has been developed by Amgen Inc. – one of the global pioneers in the development of innovative biologic drugs.

According to US-FDA, a biosimilar is a biological product that is approved based on a showing that it is highly similar to an already-approved biological product and has no clinically meaningful differences in terms of safety, purity and potency (i.e., safety and effectiveness) from the reference product, in addition to meeting other criteria specified by law.

Although, Amjevita is biosimilar to Humira,  it has not been approved as an interchangeable product with Humira. This issue is considered as a major regulatory roadblock in the US for substitution of original biologic brands with their biosimilar equivalents, which can, therefore, be prescribed mostly to the new patients. It’s worth noting here that Humira – the blockbuster arthritis drug of AbbVie Inc. clocked a sale of US$ 14 billion in 2015, and probably will continue to do so in the foreseeable future, even long after patent expiry. I shall touch upon that point below, briefly.

It is estimated that the savings of putting just new patients on much less expensive biosimilar drugs, sans substitution of the expensive original brand, will be billions of dollars. Nonetheless, this will help reduce the cost of treatment with biologic medications, improving their access to many others.

A key barrier:

Interestingly, the barriers to following the biosimilar path are being mostly created none other than the innovative drug companies themselves, even post patent expiry, presumably to extend market exclusivity and monopoly pricing.

Arising out of one such key barrier, in the form of patent litigation, Amgen’s Amjevita, in all probability, may not be available to deserving patients for years. This could involve a protracted process of skillfully navigating through the labyrinth of legalities.

On August 05, 2016, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported that AbbVie Inc. has filed a patent-infringement lawsuit against rival Amgen Inc., seeking to block sales of a lower-priced biosimilar of AbbVie’s top-selling, now generally considered as an off-patent drug – Humira.

When the narrative gets paradoxical:

While all the ‘research-based’ drug companies claim to be ‘patient-centric’ in their business approaches, be it with the development of biosimilars or in other areas, somewhere this narrative gets paradoxical.

On September 02, 2016, Reuters reported that global ‘research-based’ companies are now ‘waging courtroom patent battles against each other over biosimilars, as the line blurs between companies known for their innovative medicines, and those that produce cheaper biotech knockoffs.’

Some of the recent high-profile examples were reported as follows:

  • Sanofi sued Merck in the US federal court over its biosimilar version of Lantus insulin with around US$7 billion in annual sales.
  • Eli Lilly reached a royalties deal with Sanofi to end a similar Lantus-related lawsuit, but their pact means the biosimilar launch was likely delayed.
  • Pfizer and Korea’s Celltrion in August beat back a court challenge from Johnson & Johnson over US$10 billion autoimmune drug Remicade, though J&J’s Janssen unit promised to appeal.
  • In a closely watched case, Novartis wants the US Supreme Court to dump a six-month marketing delay for biosimilars, in what would be the first time the high court took up a biosimilar case.
  • Samsung Bioepis, along with partner and minority shareholder Biogen Inc, filed a lawsuit against AbbVie in Britain in March to stop the US company from blocking the launch of yet another Humira biosimilar.

It is equally noteworthy, while Amgen is keen to launch its own biosimilars, the company’s aggressive legal strategy delayed Novartis’s efforts to introduce the first US biosimilar, Zarxio, before the copy of Amgen’s US $1 billion drug Neupogen finally went on sale last year.

Further, Amgen has also filed a legal suit against a biosimilar version of its Enbrel (etanercept) developed by Novartis (Sandoz), which has already received regulatory approval from the US-FDA on August 30, 2016 for multiple inflammatory diseases.

Taking these into consideration, isn’t, therefore, about time to ponder afresh, whether the innovative drug makers’ general mindset of maintaining drug exclusivity with a very high price, on techno-legal grounds, even after enjoying price monopoly over a long period of the specified time, be termed as ‘patient-centric’?

Indian scenario:

Indian players have already started developing biosimilar drugs in the country. This market offers a lucrative future opportunity considering that original biologic brands with a global turnover of around US$ 70 billion will expire by 2020.

The first biosimilar was approved and marketed in India for a hepatitis B vaccine in 2000 (GaBI Online). By now, around 30 such products have reportedly received the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI)’s approval for marketing in India. Even after the new biosimilar guidelines were framed and implemented locally, since 2012, there has not been any worthwhile legal suits filed by the global innovative biologic manufacturers, against the Indian companies or such products developed and approved in India, till 2014.

Since then, this scenario has changed with Roche suing Biocon and its partner Mylan on their biosimilar versions of Roche’s Herceptin (Trastuzumab) for breast cancer, and also making the DCGI a party to this suit. This litigation is broadly on the following grounds:

  • Non-adherence to the Indian biosimilar guidelines
  • Misrepresentation of drugs as biosimilar and passing off 

Be that as it may, its key impact is on affordable biosimilar drugs that can save more lives of breast cancer patients in India. If it is so, do such litigations demonstrate a patient-centric perspective for so important a drug, which is not even protected by a product patent in India, any longer?

Are biosimilars the only examples?

Lest I am not seen as highlighting only the instances of blocking market entry of biosimilar drugs, as sole examples of ‘patient-centric focus’, or lack of it, of many global innovative drug manufacturers, I would now expand it, just a bit. This is only to fathom the bottom-line – whether it is a ‘patients-centric’ focus, or solely a ‘profit-centric’ outlook.

‘Patients-centric’ or ‘Profit-centric’?

To get a sense on this vexing issue, it would be worthwhile for us to find out by ourselves the most appropriate reason behind each of the following. Of course it’s just an illustration. This reason could be either a ‘patient centric’ focus, or simply a ‘profit centric’ outlook. …And then let’s try to make out which way the overall balance tilts, on the ground:

  • Discovering new drugs, delivery systems, and finding new indications
  • Lack of transparency and widely reported bias towards mainly positive results in clinical trial data, both for publication and regulatory approval of various new drugs, and associated global furor.
  • Exorbitant high prices of many new patented medicines and some generic drugs too
  • Widely reported marketing/other malpractices, and associated fines paid by the respective players
  • Causing entry delay for cheaper small molecule generics and large molecule biosimilar drugs post patent expiry restricting gtreaterr patient access

What’s your relative score now?

Conclusion:

Let me sign off here by raising the following relevant questions in this area, for all of us to think and address, as we deem appropriate:

Is the narrative of ‘patient centric’ approach of the ‘research-based’ global drug companies’ now getting clearer with the widely reported credible examples, as above?

Is there still a paradox between their two different strategic business approaches – one entry into off-patent drug development, such as biosimilars, and the other in blocking or delaying entry of such drugs, whenever possible, even after enjoying a specified period of product pricing monopoly?

Does it then mean, what a large section of pharma industry constituents is now publicly demonstrating, at least in the above areas, more than negates their protracted sound bites on ‘patient centric’ focus?

Despite these facts, would pharma related criticism in this space be termed as just a fad of the stakeholders?

If not, what should be the way forward from here to ensure that remedial measures are taken in so important an area of ‘patient-centric’ outlook, soon enough?

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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