How Indian generic companies are expanding, if not shifting their business focus on biosimilar and complex generic drugs, may be a current trend of general discourse – but the initiative is not a current one. This journey commenced decades ago with an eye on the future. In those days, Indian players were already dominating the global markets of small molecule generic drugs. Interestingly, it started much before the big global players decided to enter into this segment – especially post patent expiry of large molecule blockbuster drugs.
This strategy not just exhibits a sound business rationale, but also benefits patients with affordable access to biosimilar versions of high cost biologic drugs. In this article, I shall dwell on this subject, basically to understand whether India is a success story with large molecule biosimilar drugs, both in terms of drug development, and also in its commercial performance.
India’s journey began with the dawn of the new millennium:
About two decades back from now, some Indian pharma companies decided to step into an uncharted frontier of large molecule biosimilar drugs. According to the ‘Generics and Biosimilars Initiative (GaBI)’, in 2000 – the first biosimilar drug, duly approved by the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI), was launched in the country. This was hepatitis B vaccine from Wockhardt – Biovac-B.
I hasten to add, in those years, there were no specific regulatory pathways for approval of large molecule biosimilar drugs in India. Thus, the same marketing approval guidelines as applicable to small molecule generic drugs, used to be followed by the DCGI for this purpose. Specific guidelines for biosimilar drugs were implemented on September 15, 2012, which was subsequently updated in August 2016. To date, around 70 large molecule biosimilar drugs, including biopharmaceuticals, have been introduced in India, as the GaBI list indicates.
It is equally important to note that well before any other countries, domestic pharma companies launched in India, AbbVie’s blockbuster Humira (adalimumab) and Roche’s breast cancer treatment Herceptin (trastuzumab). In this context, it is worth mentioning that US-FDA approved the first biosimilar product, Zarxio (filgrastim-sndz), in March 2015.
Will India be a key driver for global biosimilar market growth?
According to the Grand View Research Report of July 2018, increasing focus on biosimilar product development in countries, such as India, China and South Korea, is a major growth driver of the global biosimilar market. As this report indicates, the global biosimilars market size was valued at USD 4.36 billion in 2016, which is expected to record a CAGR of 34.2 percent during 2018-25 period.
Europe has held the largest revenue market share due to a well-defined regulatory framework for biosimilars was in place there for quite some time, and was followed by Asia Pacific (AP), in 2016. Growing demand for less expensive therapeutic products and high prevalence of chronic diseases in the AP region are expected to contribute to the regional market growth – the report highlighted.
Further, the Report on ‘Country-wise biosimilar pipelines number in development worldwide 2017’ of Statista also indicated that as of October 2017, India has a pipeline of 257 biosimilar drugs, against 269 of China, 187 of the United States, 109 of South Korea, 97 of Russia and 57 of Switzerland. However, post 2009 – after biosimilar regulatory pathway was established in the United States, the country has gained significant momentum in this segment, presenting new opportunities and also some challenges to biosimilar players across the world.
Is Indian biosimilar market growth enough now?
An important point to ponder at this stage: Is Indian biosimilar market growth good enough as of now, as compared to its expected potential? Against the backdrop of India’s global success with generic drugs – right from the initial stages, the current biosimilar market growth is certainly not what it ought to be. Let me illustrate this point by drawing an example from theAssociated Chambers of Commerce of India’s October 2016 White Paper.
According to the Paper, biosimilars were worth USD 2.2 billion out of the USD 32 billion of the Indian pharmaceutical market, in 2016, and is expected to reach USD 40 billion by 2030. This represents a CAGR of 30 percent. A range of biologic patent expiry in the next few years could add further fuel to this growth.
A similar scenario prevails in the global market, as well. According to Energias Market Research report of August 2018, ‘the global biosimilar market is expected to grow significantly from USD 3,748 million in 2017 to USD 34,865 million in 2024, at a CAGR of 32.6 percent from 2018 to 2024.’
Many other reports also forecast that the future of biosimilar drugs would be dramatically different. For example, the ‘World Preview 2017, Outlook to 2022 Report’ of Evaluate Pharma estimated that the entry of biosimilars would erode the total sales of biologics by as much as 54 percent through 2022, in the global markets. It further elaborated that biologic sales may stand to lose up to USD 194 billion as several top blockbuster biologic drugs will go off-patent during this period.
Although, current growth rate of the biosimilar market isn’t at par with expectations, there is a reasonable possibility of its zooming north, both in India and the overseas markets, in the near future. However, I would put a few riders for this to happen, some of which are as follows:
Some uncertainties still exist:
I shall not discuss here the basic barriers that restrict entry of too many players in this segment, unlike small molecule generics. Some of which are – requisite scientific and regulatory expertise, alongside wherewithal to create a world class manufacturing facility a complex nature. Keeping those aside, there are some different types of uncertainties, which need to be successfully navigated to succeed with biosimilars. To get an idea of such unpredictability, let me cite a couple of examples, as hereunder:
1. Unforeseen patent challenges, manufacturing and regulatory issues:
- Wherewithal to effectively navigate through any unexpected labyrinth of intricate patent challenges, which are very expensive and time-consuming. It may crop up even during the final stages of development, till drug marketing, especially in potentially high profit developed markets, like for biosimilars of Humira (AbbVie) in the United States or for Roche’s Herceptin and Avastin in India.
- It is expensive, time consuming and risk-intensive to correct even a minor modification or unforeseen variation in the highly controlled manufacturing environment to maintain quality across the system, to ensure high product safety. For example, what happened to Biocon and Mylan with Herceptin Biosimilar. As the production volume goes up, the financial risk becomes greater.
- There are reports that innovator companies may make access to supplies of reference products difficult, which are so vital for ‘comparability testing and clinical trials.’ This could delay the entire process of development of biosimilar drugs, inviting a cost and time-overrun.
- Current regulatory requirements in various countries may not be exactly the same, involving significant additional expenditure for overseas market access.
2. User-perception of biosimilar drugs:
Studies on perception of biosimilar vis-à-vis originator’s biologic drugs have brought out that many prescribing physicians still believe that there can be differences between originator’s biologic medicine and their biosimilar equivalents. With drug safety being the major concern of patients, who trust their physician’s decision to start on or switch to a biosimilar, this dilemma gets often translated into doctors’ preferring the originator’s product to its biosimilar version. One such study was published in the September 2017 issue of Bio Drugs. Thus, the evolution of the uptake of biosimilars could also depend mainly on similar perception of physicians.
What happens if this perception continues?
Whereas, the W.H.O and drug regulators in different countries are quite clear about comparable safety and efficacy between the originator’s product and its biosimilar variety, some innovator companies’ position on biosimilar drug definition, could help creating a perception that both are not being quite the same, both in efficacy and safety.
To illustrate this point, let me reproduce below how a top ranked global pharma company - Amgen, defines biosimilar drugs, starting with a perspective of biologic medicines:
“Biologic medicines have led to significant advances in the treatment of patients with serious illnesses.These medicines are large, complex molecules that are difficult to manufacture because they are made in living cells grown in a laboratory. It is impossible for a different manufacturer to make an exact replica of a biologic medicine due to several factors, including the inherent complexity of biologics and the proprietary details of the manufacturing process for the original biologic medicine, often referred to as the reference product.It is because of this that copies of biological products are referred to as “biosimilars”; they are highly SIMILAR but not identical to the biologic upon which they are based.”
Could dissemination of the above concept through a mammoth sales and marketing machine to the target audience, lead to creating a better perception that the originators’ biologic drugs are better than their biosimilar genre?
Despite the availability of a wide array of biosimilar drugs, the prescription pattern of these molecules is still very modest, even in India. One of its reasons, as many believe, these are still not affordable to many, due to high out-of-pocket drug expenses in India.
Thus, where other biosimilars of the same category already exist, competitive domestic pricing would play a critical role for faster market penetration, as happens with small molecule generic drugs.
Another strategic approach to address cost aspect of the issue, is to explore possibilities of sharing the high cost and risks associated with biosimilar drug development, through collaborative arrangements with global drug companies. One good Indian example in this area is Biocon’s collaboration with Mylan.
The question on whether Indian biosimilar market growth is good enough, assumes greater importance, specifically against the backdrop of domestic players’ engagement in this segment, since around last two decades. Apart from the important perception issue with biosimilars , these medicines are still not affordable to many in India, owing to high ‘out of pocket’ drug expenditure. Just focusing on the price difference between original biologic drugs and their biosimilars, it is unlikely to get this issue resolved. There should be enough competition even within biosimilars to drive down the price, as happened earlier with small molecule generics.
That said, with around 100 private biopharmaceutical companies associated with development, manufacturing and marketing of biosimilar drugs in India, the segment certainly offers a good opportunity for future growth. Over 70 such drugs, most of which are biosimilar versions of blockbuster biologic, are already in the market. Today, Indian companies are stepping out of the shores of India, expecting to make their presence felt in the global biosimilar markets, as they did with generic drugs.
The future projections of biosimilar drugs, both in the domestic and global markets are indeed very bullish. But to reap a rich harvest from expected future opportunities, Indian players would still require some more grounds to cover. Overall, in terms of biosimilar drug development since 2000, India indeed stands out as a success story, but a spectacular commercial success with biosimilars is yet to eventuate.
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.