Protect Generic Drug Margin Moving Up The Value Chain

As an innovative drug molecule goes off-patent, it paves the way for market-entry of cheaper generic equivalents of the same. It benefits not just the patients, but all generic drug players awaiting this opportunity. But, in case of even those generic drugs enjoying 180-day exclusivity in the United States, the price erosion would still be significant, at least, 20 percent to 30 percent. Post 180-day exclusivity, intense competition between different formulations of the same molecule can bring the price down by even 85 percent or more, as compared to the original one.

While looking at the world’s largest pharma market, one sees an interesting scenario unfolding in this area. The Generic Access and Savings Report in the United States 2018 released on July 10, 2018 by the Association for Accessible Medicines, captures it well. Some of the key findings of which on generic drugs are as follows:

  • In 2017, generic medicines account for nine out of every 10 prescriptions filled in the United States.
  • Patients fail to fill their prescriptions for brand-name drugs at a rate 2-3 times higher than for generics.
  • 93 percent of generic prescriptions are filled at $20 or less.
  • Average patient copay for a generic prescription is $6.06.
  • Generic medicines generated a total of $265 billion in savings.

That’s a good story for the patients in general, and specifically for those who are in the United States. That said, there is a business aspect of this story, as well. In this article, I shall focus on that, venturing into the way forward. However, before proceeding further, for the understanding of all, let me briefly explain, what is this 180-day exclusivity period as described by the FDA in the United States (USFDA).

180-day exclusivity period for generic drug:

USFDA may grant some exclusivity to Abbreviated New Drug Applications (ANDAs) for generic drugs. For this purpose, under the Drug Price Competition and Patent Term Restoration Act, or the Hatch-Waxman Act, a company can seek approval from the FDA to market a generic drug before the expiration of a patent relating to the brand name drug upon which the generic is based. The first company to submit an ANDA with the FDA has the exclusive right to market the generic drug for 180 days. This is called 180-day exclusivity and:

  • Provides an incentive of 180 days of market exclusivity to the “first” generic applicant who challenges a listed patent by filing a paragraph IV certification and running the risk of having to defend a patent infringement suit.
  • Begins either from the date the sponsor begins commercial marketing of the generic drug product, or from the date of a court decision finding the patent invalid, unenforceable or not infringed, whichever is first.
  • In some circumstances, an applicant who obtains 180-day exclusivity may be the sole marketer of a generic competitor to the innovator product for 180 days
  • FDA does not send letters to the sponsor indicating the grant of exclusivity. The Orange Book is the official vehicle for dissemination of this information.

It is worth noting that some drugs have both patent and exclusivity protections while others have just one or none. Patents and exclusivity may or may not run concurrently and may or may not encompass the same claims.

Increasing pressure on margin:

Nevertheless, after 180-day exclusivity period or as in most other cases, cut-throat price competition starts among product proliferation. On the other hand, even after patent expiry, the prices of original brand name drugs keep attracting a substantial premium. According to another study: “Brand-name drugs have been shown to be priced 20 percent higher than generic drugs in the Netherlands, 30 percent higher in Germany, 50 percent higher in Canada, 50–90 percent higher in the US, and 80 percent higher in the UK.”

In today’s environment, generic drugs are under severe cost pressure also because of direct government interventions in many large markets, such as the United States. A couple of other factors also play a major role in squeezing the generic drug margin in several countries, such as:

  • Large wholesalers while fighting with each other to get the pharmacy business, often exert tough pressure on generic manufacturers to lower the price.
  • Other bulk buyers also do the same making the margin wafer-thin.

Its cumulative impact leads to commoditization of generic drugs.

Commoditization of generic drugs:

As is known to many, for a commodity there are many suppliers mostly without any tangible differentiating features and benefits. The same thing happens to generic medicines of the same molecule without any worthwhile difference in efficacy, quality and safety standards. Thus, the price of a generic formulation generally includes its total cost, plus a margin, and depends market demand and supply for products outside any price control. Intense competition within many players with more supply of the same molecule, often squeezes the margin out to a dangerous level.

This scenario was well captured in an 2018 article published in the Journal of Bioequivalence & Bioavailability (volume 10(3): 48-49 (2018) –48). It reiterated, cutthroat competition and public pressure pose challenges for ethical and generic pharma companies. 7 to 10 percent annual price erosion, increased competition coupled with other pressure push margins lower leading to decreased profitability.

Major costs did not change much:

Moreover, the major fixed costs involving raw materials, packing materials, labor and conversion expenditure did not change commensurately. The manufacturing process and yield improvement measures did help. But up to a certain point and not beyond that, to keep the quality of finished formulations within the accepted regulatory requirements of the respective countries, such as the United States.

The trend prevails in 2018: 

The above trend prevails even in 2018, in continuation with the previous year. One may recall that in August 2017, due to serious price erosion, several billion dollars in market value were wiped out for some top generic companies. These names include India’s homegrown Dr. Reddy’s Lab., besides Teva and Mylan.

The article titled, ‘Opportunities and Obstacles for Generic Drugs,’ published in PharmTechalso emphasized: ‘Continued pressure on generic-drug prices may reduce product development and limit manufacturing in the US. Numerous state officials have filed lawsuits against generic-drug makers for alleged price-fixing, and debate continues over brand vs. generic product labeling to warn consumers about safety issues. All these trends will shape generic-drug production and costs in the coming months.’

In this situation, the ability of the generic companies to find ways to increase their margin will be the key to success in this business, if not for a long-term survival too.

Ways to achieve it:

One of the novel ways to achieve this goal is entry into ‘Complex Generics’ business.

According to Market Realist – an independent investment research organization, ‘Complex Generics’ are attractive due to high margins. Unlike, commoditized generic formulations, ‘complex generics’ are not easy to manufacture and are generally used in specialty care, namely for treating serious chronic diseases or several life-threatening ailments, such as cancer, HIV or hepatitis C. To some extent complex generics create a market entry barrier for many generic players, due to higher manufacturing cost and complex processes involved in developing this genre of drugs.Complex generics may be classified into several categories, such as:

  • Complex Active Ingredients: like, peptides
  • Complex Formulations: like, liposomes, iron colloids
  • Complex Delivery System: like, locally acting drugs
  • Complex Drug-Device Combinations: like respiratory metered dose inhalers, transdermal system or a medicated adhesive patch
  • Biosimilar drugs

On October 09, 2018, a statement from USFDA Commissioner Scott Gottlieb highlighted a new effort to advance the development of generic copies of complex drugs to improve patient access to medicines. Gottlieb said, complex generics “aredrugs that, by nature of their formulation or delivery systems for example, are harder to ‘genericize’ under our traditional approaches. As a result, these drugs often face less competition. Today, we’re announcing a series of guidance documents that will advance the development of generic transdermal and topical delivery systems (TDS).”

This is an interesting development in the world’s largest pharma market.

Lucrative prices of complex generics:

Prices of complex generics are much higher than conventional generic drugs. According to Market Realist a complex generic could cost around US$ 6,000 per month to patients, but would still remain way below the cost of related original brand. Hence, it is a win-win situation – both for patients and also the generic drug manufacturers. Additionally, alongside benefiting patients in terms of cost, complex generics show potential to fetch higher profitability with a reasonable product differentiation.

The ball has started rolling:

It happened in a big way this year, when due to intense price pressure on generics, Sandoz division of Novartis took a major step. On September 6, 2018 - Novartis announced that it has agreed to sell selected portions of its Sandoz US portfolio, specifically the Sandoz US dermatology business and generic US oral solid portfolio, to Aurobindo Pharma USA Inc. It also said, ‘this transaction supports the Sandoz strategy of focusing on complex-generics, value-added medicines and biosimilars to achieve sustainable and profitable growth in the US over the long-term.’

Indian generic drug manufacturers have also sniffed this opportunity. Several Indian players, such as Sun Pharma, Cipla, Lupin, Reliance Life Science, Dr. Reddy’s Laboratories, Glenmark, Biocon and Aurobindo Pharma, to name a few, have made forays into complex generics, including biosimilars. All put together Indian companies have filed around 50 ANDAs in the United States. This number is good, but may not guarantee success for all the applicants. Only the quality of these ANDAs will determine how soon, or how late, or how expensive would be the process of getting marketing approval for complex generics in the United States.

Conclusion:

As ‘The Lancet Oncology’ editorial of June 2015 noted: ‘In recent years, generics manufacturers have increased investment in the development of complex generics.” I reckon, this won’t include a large number of drug exporters from India – not just yet.

The development process of complex generics isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. Thus, venturing into this area by any generic player of all sizes and scale, would call for greater commitment from the company concerned. This path is arduous as compared to conventional generics. If not navigated properly, cost may also be high in certain circumstances. For example, if and when the regulator asks more elaborate trial, or repeat trials, or even the marketing approval process itself could be tough to conform with. That said, complex generics are expected to eventually contribute a significant percentage of the generic market, as their approval challenges are overcome.

Be that as it may, to improve, if not for protecting the profitability of the generic drug business, transacted especially in the developed world, there doesn’t seem to be much option left now, but to move up the value chain.

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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