The above comment, although sounds a bit harsh, was made recently by none other than Scott Gottlieb - the Food and Drug Administration Commissioner of the United States. He expressed his anguish while explaining the reasons for a delayed launch of several important biosimilar drugs.
We know, this new genre of drugs has a potential to be a quick game changer, significantly improving access to affordable biologic medicines for many patients. Unfortunately, much desired accelerated progress in this direction, got considerably retarded in the face of a strong headwind, craftily created by the innovator companies, as is widely believed. There are various ways of creating the same. However, the two major ones can be ascribed to:
- Getting caught in the labyrinth of complex patent challenge.
- General apprehensions of many doctors on the efficacy and safety of biosimilars as compared to reference drugs.
This is happening in major markets, including India, in varying degree, though. In this article, I shall deliberate on this issue, starting with the largest pharma market of the world and then focusing on India.
‘Toxin’ that delays biosimilar drug launch:
“Americans could have saved $ 4.5 billion in 2017, if all of the FDA-approved biosimilars were actually available in the United States, instead of getting delayed because of litigations or other agreements.” The Food and Drug Administration Commissioner of the United States – Scott Gottlieb, reportedly, made this comment on July 18, 2018.
Gottlieb referred to some of these as a “toxin” that have prevented other drug makers from launching biosimilar medicines. He accused the manufacturers of pricey biologic medicines of using “unacceptable” anti-competitive tactics to keep competitors off the market. These cost Americans billions of dollars – the report highlighted.
These tactics, as the US FDA commissioner said, are being deliberately used by the innovator pharma and biotech companies and can be corroborated with several examples. One such is the fact that despite the expiration ofthe ‘composition of the matter’ patent for Humira (adalimumab) in December 2016, its ‘non-composition of the matter’ patent would expire not earlier than 2022. The company has therefore made settlement agreements with Amgen and Samsung Bioepis, delaying the launch of adalimumab biosimilars until January 2023.
Protecting own patents Big Pharma challenging rivals’ patents:
Both these are happening for original biologic and biosimilar equivalents, often by the same manufacturers. For example, the Reuters report of October 02, 2016, titled ‘Big Pharma vs Big Pharma in court battles over biosimilar drugs’ highlighted, although Novartis and Amgen are at each other’s throats in court over the Swiss drug maker’s Enbrel copy, but the two are still cooperating on a drug for migraines.
“One of the biggest surprises has been the number of innovator Biopharma companies, like Amgen, now developing biosimilars to compete with the products of other innovator companies,” the article observes. It also reports that Sanofi, Merck, Eli Lilly, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Biogen are also embroiled in lawsuits over biosimilars.
This trend vindicates that the line dividing makers of brand-name drugs and copycat medicines is blurring as companies known for innovative treatments queue up to peddle copies of rivals’ complex biological medicines, Reuters noted. Consequently, they are now doing both – protecting their high-price products from biosimilars drugs,while simultaneously challenging rivals’ patent claims.
There is another interesting side to it. Notwithstanding, biosimilars are a cost-effective alternative to biologic drugs that could improve patients’ access to expensive biological medicines, prescribers’ perception of biosimilar medicines are still not quite positive, just yet.
Doctors’ attitude on biosimilar prescription:
To illustrate this point, let me quote from recent research findings in this area. One such is the May 2017 study on “Medical specialists’ attitudes to prescribing biosimilars.” The key points are as follows:
- Between 54 and 74 percent of the specialists are confident in the safety, efficacy, manufacturing and Pharmacovigilance of biosimilars.
- 71 percent of specialists agreed that they would prescribe biosimilars for all or some conditions meeting relevant clinical criteria.
- Specialists are less confident about indication extrapolation and switching patients from an existing biologic.
- The most common situations that they would not prescribe a biosimilar was where there was a lack of clinical data supporting efficacy (32 percent), or evidence of adverse effects.
Overall, medical specialists held positive attitudes towards biosimilars, but were less confident in indication extrapolation and switching patients from the original biologic. Several experts believe that constantly highlighting the fear factors against biosimilar drugs, such as possible risks of interchangeability with reference product, or immunogenicity related serious consequences, though very rare, are fueling the fire of apprehensions on the wide use of biosimilar medicines.
However, several reviews, like the one that I am quoting here finds that ‘switching from the reference product to related biosimilar drug is not inherently dangerous.’I discussed this issue, with details in one of my articles, published in this blog on July 31, 2017.
Any therapeutic difference between the original biologic and biosimilars?
As the US-FDA says: “Patients and their physicians can expect that there will be no clinically meaningful differences between taking a reference product and a biosimilar drug when these products are used as intended. All reference products and biosimilar products meet FDA’s rigorous standards for approval for the indications (medical conditions) described in product labeling.”
The key point to take note of is that the US drug regulator categorically reiterates: “Once a biosimilar has been approved by the FDA, patients and health care providers can be assured of the safety and effectiveness of the biosimilar, just as they would for the reference product.”
The invisible barriers to biosimilar drugs in India:
Although, there are no specific data requirements for interchangeability of biosimilar drugs with the reference product, as mentioned in the latest Indian Guidelines on similar biologic, other visible and visible barriers are restricting the rapid growth of drugs belonging to this genre.
An interesting research study finds, like many other drugs, the cost of biosimilars is a major barrier to the rapid growth of the market in India. The Deloitte Report, titled “Winning with biosimilars: Opportunities in global markets” also articulated: “Approximately 70 percent of the country’s population is considered rural and will focus on the cost of therapy – a 20-30 percent discount on originator biologics may not be sufficient.”
Moreover, many patients who are on original biologic drugs, costing higher than related biosimilars and want to switch over to affordable equivalents, are not able to do so. In many cases, doctors’ do not encourage them to do so, for various reasons, including the general assertion that original biologic drugs are more effective. India being considered as the global capital of diabetes, let me cite an example from this disease area, just to drive home the point.
A recent experience on biosimilar drug interchangeability in India:
Just the last week, I received a call from a friend’s wife living in Delhi who wanted to know whether Lantus 100 IU/ml of Sanofi can be replaced with Glaritus 100 IU/ml of Wockhardt, as the latter costs much less. I advised her to consult their doctor and request accordingly. She said, it has already been done and the doctor says Lantus is a better product.
To get a fact-based idea on what she told me, I referred to two circulars of the National Pharmaceutical Pricing Authority (NPPA) – one for Glaritus and the other one for Lantus and found that both are under drug price control and have respective ceiling prices. As both the circulars are of 2009, these may probably be treated as an indicative price difference. NPPA notified price for a 3 ml cartridge of Glaritus reads as Rs.135. 24. Whereas, the same for Lantus was mentioned as Rs.564.84.
Is an original biologic generally superior to Indian biosimilars?
US-FDA has already reiterated, “Once a biosimilar has been approved by the FDA, patients and health care providers can be assured of the safety and effectiveness of the biosimilar, just as they would for the reference product.”
However, to get India-specific, evidence-based information in this area, I checked, whether Lantus has any clinically proven therapeutic superiority over Glaritus. Interestingly, I came across the results of a 12-week study concluding that biosimilar insulin glargine, Glaritus, is comparable to the reference product, Lantus – providing a safe and effective option for patients with T1DM. Nevertheless, the researchers did say that more studies are required in this area.
The core question that needs to be addressed why is the doctor’s perception so different and the reasons for the same?
In view of all that has been discussed in this article, I find it challenging to fathom that in the absence of any credible and conclusive specific study, how could a doctor possibly infer that higher priced imported original biologic drugs are generally superior to lower priced biosimilar equivalents? More so, when in India, there are no regulatory issues on interchangeability between original biologic and its biosimilar equivalent.
Or for that matter, a branded generic product is superior to all other equivalent generic drugs without a brand name? This can happen, especially when the vested interests actively work on ensuring that such a perception gains ground, boosting the sales revenue and mostly at the cost of patients’ interest.
As one would witness in many other spheres of life that creating a blatantly self-serving, positive target audience perception, by any means, primarily aimed at destroying the same of others, is assuming increasing importance. Are we seeing the reflection of the same, even in the field of evidence based medical science?
I reckon, it raises a flag for all to ponder, particularly after reading the recent candid comments of the US-FDA commissioner, as quoted above.
Could this be one of those ‘Toxins’, which delays success of biosimilar drugs?
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.