Scandalizing Biosimilar Drugs With Safety Concerns

With the patent expiry of exorbitantly priced biologic medicines, introduction of biosimilar drugs are expected to improve their access to millions of patients across the world, saving billions of dollars in healthcare costs in the subsequent years. According to an article published in Forbes, it is estimated that the potential savings in the United States alone from just 11 biosimilar drugs over a period ranging from 2014 to 2024 could easily be U$250 billion.

However, the flip side of this much awaited development would make commensurate dent on the sales performance of original brand name biologics, now being marketed by the global pharma majors armed with patent monopoly rights.

Innovating hurdles to negate the impact:

Facing this stark reality, global innovators of biotech drugs allegedly want to fast germinate a strong apprehension in the minds of all concerned on the safety and replaceability of biosimilar drugs. Consequently, this would severely restrict the usage of this new class of products, sacrificing patients’ health interest.

To translate this grand plan into reality, garnering additional support from ten medical societies and a physicians’ group, the global players, which mostly hold various patents on biologics, reportedly urged the USFDA to require biosimilars to have distinct names from the original biologics, on the pretext that different names would make it easier for prescribers to distinguish between medicines that “may differ slightly” and also track adverse events and side effect reports that appear in patient records.

However, other stakeholders have negated this move, which is predominantly to make sure that no substitution of high priced original biologics takes place with the cheaper versions of equivalent biosimilars to save on drug costs.

Intense lobbying to push the envelope:

Interestingly, this intense lobbying initiative of big pharma to assign a distinct or different name for biosimilar drugs, if accepted by the USFDA, would provide a clear and cutting-edge commercial advantage to the concerned pharma and biotech majors, even much after their respective biologic drugs go off patent.

Thus, the above allegedly concerted move does not surprise many.

Mounting protests against industry move:

Biosimilar drug makers, on the other hand, have suggested to the USFDA to make biosimilars fall under the same International Non-Proprietary Name (INN) system, like all generic prescription drugs.  They believe that new names would create confusion and the physicians and pharmacists may face difficulties in ascertaining whether biosimilar drugs serve the same purpose with similar dosing and regimens.

The protest seems to have a snowballing effect. In July 2014, by a letter to the Commissioner Hamburg of USFDA, different groups representing pharmacy, labor unions, health insurance plans and others, have reportedly urged her not to go for different INNs for the original biologic and a biosimilar drug, for the same reason as cited above. The letter reinforces that the industry move, if accepted by the USFDA could increase the possibility of medication errors, besides adversely affecting the substitution required to bring down overall health care costs for high priced specialized biologics, thereby slowing down the uptake of biosimilars significantly.

Global pharma investors also raising voices in support of biosimilars:

Another similar and major development followed soon. A letter titled, “Investor Statement on Board Oversight of Biosimilar Issues”, written by a group of 19 institutional investors that manages about US$430 billion in assets, to the boards of several big pharma and biotech companies, flagged that some pharma majors have been scandalizing the safety concerns of biosimilar drugs. This is happening despite the fact that this class of drugs already has a well-established track record in Europe.

They emphasize that recent actions taken by some big pharma companies could raise concerns on the overall acceptance of biosimilar drugs, which would forestall any projected savings on that subject. They also reportedly expressed serious concern that shareholder interests could be adversely affected, if the pharma and biotech players pursue those policies that undermine corporate transparency and medical innovation.

The letter underscores, “Companies seeking to downplay the patient safety record of European biosimilars have also challenged the capacity of the FDA to promulgate rules and determine when biosimilars may be substituted for biologics.”

Among other points, the letter reiterates:

  • Though the important role of biologics in treating cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, anemia, multiple sclerosis and many other conditions is well recognized, the costs of these medicines are on an unsustainable trajectory, with some biologics costing as much 22 times more than other drugs. This critical issue seriously impedes patients’ access to biologics, as well as, acceptance by providers and insurance companies.
  • Biosimilars hold the promise of lowering costs of treating conditions for which biologics are indicated. At the same time, the recent adoption of a regulatory pathway to approval of biosimilars in the US market and the continued growth of biosimilars in the European Union, Japan, Canada, Australia and South Korea, pose a formidable business challenge for the companies that market patented biologic medicines.
  • Financial experts project that biosimilars too have the potential for significant market penetration and attractive returns on investments.
  • Assigning different INN would communicate to providers that the biosimilar is less effective, prompting them not to prescribe this class of medicines and making it difficult for the pharmacists to dispense too. Besides, different names could lead to prescribing errors.
  • In short, the boards of directors of the pharma and biotech majors were urged by these investors to use the following principles to guide their decision-making related to biosimilars:

-       Policy and educational information provided on biosimilars should be balanced, accurate and informed by the patient safety experience of biosimilars in the European Union and other biosimilar drug markets.

-       Lobbying expenditures for federal and state activities related to biosimilars should be fully disclosed and the boards should ensure that political activities are aligned with the interests of investors and other stakeholders.

-       Key information about any partnership or business deal related to biosimilars should be fully disclosed to investors, including information about the value, terms and duration of the deal.

The WHO proposal:

In this context it is worth recapitulating, the World Health Organization (WHO) that oversees the global INN system has held a number of meetings to resolve this issue. The WHO proposal suggests that the current system for choosing INNs to remain unchanged, but that a four-letter code would be attached at the end of every drug name. However, individual regulatory agencies in each country could choose whether to adopt such coding or not.

Let us wait to see what really pans out of this flexible WHO proposal on the subject.

Biosimilars go through stringent regulatory review:

It is important to note that the drug regulators carefully review biosimilars before giving marketing approval for any market, as these drugs must prove to be highly similar without any clinically meaningful differences from the original biologic molecules. The interchangeability between biosimilars and the original biologics must also be unquestionably demonstrated to be qualified for being substitutable at the pharmacy level without the need for intervention by a physician.

Thus, there does not seem to be any basis for different INN, other than to severely restrict competition from biosimilars.

12-year data exclusivity period for biologics – another hurdle created earlier:

Another barrier to early introduction of cheaper biosimilar drugs in the United States is the 12-year data exclusivity period for biologics.

On this issue GPhA – the generic drug makers’ group in the United States reportedly issued a statement, criticizing a paper of Biotechnology Industry Organization (BIO), saying:

“Market exclusivity acts as an absolute shield to their weak patents. Thus, from a practical perspective, extending market exclusivity beyond the Hatch-Waxman period would block the introduction of generic competition for almost 20 years, derailing any potential cost savings by Americans.”

The market potential of biosimilars:

A new report by Allied Market Research estimates that the global biosimilars market would reach US$35 billion by 2020 from the estimated US$1.3 billion in 2013. During the next four years, over 10 blockbuster biologic drugs clocking aggregated annual sales turnover of US $60 billion would go off patent in the United States and in Europe. Humira – a US$10 billion drug of Abbvie that loses patent protection in 2016 is at the top of list.

In tandem, facilitation of regulatory pathways of marketing approval for this class of drugs in many developed markets is expected to drive its growth momentum through greater market penetration and access.

Asia Pacific region is likely to emerge as the leader in the biosimilar drugs market, primarily due to heightened interest and activity of the local players. Collaboration between Mylan and Biocon to commercialize biosimilar version of trastuzumab of Roche in India and the approval of first biosimilar version of monoclonal antibody drug by Hospira in Europe are the encouraging indications.

High growth oncology and autoimmune disease areas are expected to attract more biosimilars developers, as many such biologics would go off patent during 2014 to 2019 period.

Monoclonal antibodies (mAbs) and erythropoietin would possibly be key to the growth drivers. Similarly, follitropins, interferons, and insulin biosimilars would emerge as high potential product segments over a period of time.

As we know, among the developed markets, Europe was the first to draft guidelines for approval of biosimilars in 2006. Consequently, the first biosimilars version of Granulocyte colony-stimulating factor (G-CSF) was introduced in the European Union under the regulatory guidance of European Medical Agency (EMA) in 2008. At present, there are three biosimilar versions of G-CSF available in the European market. Insulin biosimilars also show a good potential for the future.

India:

India is now well poised to encash on this opportunity, which I had deliberated in one of my earlier blog post titled, “Moving Up The Generic Pharma Value Chain”.

Current global usage of biosimilars:

Though regulatory pathways for biosimilar drugs are now in place in the United States, no biosimilar has yet been approved there. However, the US drug regulator has for the first time accepted an application for the approval of a biosimilar version of Neupogen (Filgrastim) of Amgen, which treats patients with low white blood cell counts. Sandoz has already been selling the biosimilar version of this drug in more than 40 countries outside the US.

According to the research organization ‘Pharmaceutical Product Development’, as on March 2013, at least 11 countries and the European Union (EU) approve, regulate and allow clinical trials of biosimilars. As of February 2012, the EU has approved at least 14 biosimilar medicines. The following table shows these countries by region:

Region

Countries

North America Canada
Europe E.U. (including U.K.)
Asia and Pacific China, India, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan
Central and South America Argentina, Brazil, Mexico
Eastern Europe Russia, Turkey

Source: Pharmaceutical Product Development

Conclusion:

With the opening up of the United States for biosimilar drugs, the entire product class is expected to be catapulted to a high growth trajectory, provided of course no more allegedly concerted attempts are made to create regulatory hurdles on its path, as we move on. This is mainly because around 46 percent of the world biologic market as on 2010 was in the United States.

However, intense lobbying and power play against biosimilar or interchangeable biologics, allegedly sponsored by the big pharma, are acting as a barrier to this much awaited development solely to benefit the patients. Such activities also undermine attractiveness of investing in safer and more affordable interchangeable biologics.

It is indeed intriguing that all these are happening, despite the fact that the regulatory approval standards for biosimilars are very stringent, as each of these drugs:

  • Must be highly similar to the reference product
  • Cannot have clinically meaningful differences from the original ones
  • Must perform the same in any given patient
  • Would have the same risk associated with switching as the reference product

Thus, scandalizing biosimilar drugs by raising self-serving ‘safety concerns’ in an orchestrated manner, just to extend product life cycles of original biologics even beyond patent expiries, is indeed a very unfortunate development. In this process, the vested interests are creating a great commercial uncertainty for this new class of medicines in the global scenario.

Be that as it may, all these seemingly well synchronized moves against biosimilars, solely to protect business interest, pooh-poohing patients’ health interests, have once again caste a dark shadow on not so enviable image of the big pharma…without even an iota of doubt.

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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