Unfettered ‘Access To Drug Innovation’ – An Oxymoron?

The mass paranoia, as it were, over Covid pandemic has now started fading with drug regulators’ ‘emergency approval’ of several Covid -19 vaccines, and its free of cost access to all, generally in most countries. As the endgame of the pandemic, supposedly, depends on the speed of Covid-19 vaccination, the drug industry’s public reputation in the interim period, driven by its rapid response to the crisis, got an unsurprising boost (62%). This was captured by the Harris Poll, released on March 15, 2021.

Interestingly, soon after the high of 62% approval rating, the decline began. It came down to 60% in May and then 56% in June 2021—and now down three more percentage points, according to the Harris Polls that followed. No wonder, why the FiercePharma article of August 24, 2021, carried a caption: ’Pharma’s reputation drops again. Could it foreshadow a return to the bottom?’

Further, in the new normal, especially when customer expectations and requirements from drug companies have significantly changed, MNC Pharma industry still appears to be in the old normal mode in this space. It still, reportedly, ‘believes that the need for innovation must be balanced with the necessity for more accessible medicines, within a robust IP and regulatory environment,’ in India.

The hidden purpose of the same could possibly be, as several industry watchers believe – availing benefits of greater access to one kind innovation, making access to other kind of innovation more difficult. Consequently, two critical points are reemerging, even in the new normal, as follows:

  • Aren’t Indian IP and regulatory ecosystems still conducive enough for MNC pharma players’ access to drug innovation?
  • In the name of greater access to pharma product innovation, are they creating barriers to pharma process innovation, delaying market access to complex generics and Biosimilar drugs – besides systematically eroding consumer confidence on such products?

In this article, under the above backdrop, I shall try to explore why the epithet – ‘access to drug innovation’ is considered an oxymoron – with contemporary examples from around the word, including India.

Aren’t Indian IP and regulatory ecosystems conducive to drug innovation? 

This allegation doesn’t seem to hold much water, as several successful local initiatives in Covid-19 vaccine development will confirm the same. Besides, already marketed Covaxin, developed by Bharat Biotech in collaboration with the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and Zydus Cadila’s ZyCov-D, there are several others waiting in the wings. These include domestic drug makers like, Hyderabad based Biological-E, Bengaluru-based medical pharma startup’s – Mynvax, and Pune-based Gennova Biopharmaceutical’s m-RNA vaccine candidates. However, only critical difference is – Indian made Covid vaccines are more affordable and accessible to patients, as against those manufactured by MNCs, such as, Pfizer, Moderna and J&J.

If we look back to the old normal, one will also find similar instances of new drug discovery in India, which deliberated in my article of September 02, 2013. Let me give just a couple of examples below:

  • Ranbaxy developed and launched its first homegrown ‘New Drug’ for malariaSynriam, on April 25, 2012
  • Zydus Cadila announced in June 2013 that the company is ready for launch in India its first New Chemical Entity (NCE) for the treatment of diabetic dyslipidemia –Lipaglyn.

Hence, meager wherewithal for R&D notwithstanding, as compared to the MNCs, Indian pharma players don’t seem to find the country’s IP and regulatory ecosystems not conducive to innovation of affordable new drugs with wider patient access.

Off-patent drugs also involve another type of major innovation:

Discovering an NCE is, unquestionably, a product of drug innovation. Similarly, developing a new – cost-effective, non-infringing manufacturing process to market off-patent drugs, like biosimilars, also involve another type of major innovation. Intriguingly, when the MNC pharma industry talks about ‘access to innovation’, the latter type of innovation isn’t publicly acknowledged and included in their drug innovation spectrum. This practice, reportedly, remains unchanged in their advocacy campaign, even in the new normal.

However, the fact is, the manufacturers of off-patent drugs, such as biosimilars, also need to follow a major innovative process, for which they require access to innovation. This was also captured in an editorial of the newsletter – Biosimilar Development. The deliberation addressed the question - Do biosimilars fit into the innovation paradigm? The editor began by articulating – hardly anyone publicly argues that the development of new manufacturing process of Biosimilar drugs is not an innovation. The industry can’t call them as a copy of an existing innovation, either.

This is also vindicated in the Amgen paper, published on February 11, 2018. It acknowledges, “Unlike small molecule generic drugs, biosimilars are not identical to the reference biologic or to other approved biosimilars of the same reference biologic, because they are developed using different cell lines and undergo different manufacturing and purification processes.” Moreover, biosimilars also carry a different International Nonproprietary Name (INN), because of their molecular differences from the reference drug. This has been specified in the nonproprietary naming Guidance document of the US-FDA of January 2017.

From this perspective, the next question that logically follows: Is process innovation as important as product innovation?

Is process innovation as critical a capability as product innovation?

This question was unambiguously answered by a pharma industry-centric Harvard Business Review(HBR) article – ‘The New Logic of High-Tech R&D’, published in its September–October 1995, issue. The paper emphasized, for the commercial success of a product ‘manufacturing-process innovation is becoming an increasingly critical capability for product innovation.’

When to meet patient-needs ‘access to innovation’ an oxymoron: 

‘Access to innovation’ is an interesting epithet that is often used by many drug companies for meeting unmet needs of patients. However, the same is also often used to create barriers to meeting unmet needs of more patients with cheaper biologic drugs, like Biosimilars, immediately after their basic patent expiry. This is mostly practiced by creating a patent thicket. Hence, drug companies’ advocacy for greater access to innovation is an oxymoron to many.

The same was echoed in another article – ‘How originator companies delay generic medicines,’ published by GaBI. It wrote, such practices delay generic entry and lead to healthcare systems and consumers paying more than they would otherwise have done for medicines. These include the following:

  • Strategic patenting
  • Patent litigation
  • Patent settlements
  • Interventions before national regulatory authorities
  • Lifecycle strategies for follow-on products.

A very recent piece on the subject, published by Fierce Pharma on August 31, 2021, vindicates that the patent life extension through the patent thicket is happening on the ground – denying patients access to cheaper equivalent, especially of off-patent biologic drugs within a reasonable time period. It highlighted:

  • The exclusivity of AbbVie’s Humira, which hit the market in 2002 and generated nearly $20 billion in sales last year was extended by 130 patents.
  • The same company has applied for 165 patents for its another blockbuster Imbruvica. Launched in 2013, Imbruvica has already generated sales of $5.3 billion for AbbVie.

No wonder, why in February 2021, during a Senate Finance Committee hearing, Sen. John Cornyn blasted the company saying:

“I support drug companies recovering a profit based on their research and development of innovative drugs,” Cornyn said. “But at some point, that patent has to end, that the exclusivity has to end, to be able to get it at a much cheaper cost.”

More reports are also available on attempts to erode consumer confidence in Biosimilar drugs, as compared to the originals.

Work for innovation sans eroding consumer confidence in Biosimilars: 

Making affordable new drugs and vaccines available to patients with ‘access to innovation’, deserves inspiration from all concerned. Curiously, even in the new normal, some big companies continue trying to erode consumer confidence in off-patent drugs, especially Biosimilars and complex generics.

For example, an article on Biosimilars moving to the center stage, published in the Pharmaceutical Executive on August 12, 2021, quoted an interesting development in this space. The article highlighted that US legislators are now ‘eyeing measures to deter innovator promotional messages that disparage follow-on competitors.’ This initiative was spurred by US-FDA criticism of an Amgen promotional communication for undermining consumer confidence in Biosimilars to its Neulasta (pegfilgrastim) injection.

On July 14, 2021, US-FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) sent a letter to Amgen carrying a caption ‘FDA notifies Amgen of misbranding of its biological product, Neulasta, due to false or  misleading promotional communication about its product’s benefit.

The letter, as reported in the above article, criticized the company for making a false claim of greater adverse events with the injection system used by Biosimilars compared to the Amgen product. OPDP advised Amgen and other firms to “carefully evaluate the information presented in promotional materials for reference products, or Biosimilar products” to ensure correct product identification and avoid consumer confusion.

Conclusion:

When the point is, creating a conducive ecosystem to promote access to innovation, it should be patient-centric – always, and, more so in the new normal, considering changing needs and expectations of health care customers.

The innovation of usually pricey new molecular entities, no doubt, meets unmet needs of those who can afford these. Whereas, manufacturing process innovation expands access to the same molecule, particularly when they go off-patent, by making them affordable to a vast majority of the population.

But powerful industry lobby groups continue pressing harder for unfettered ‘access to innovation’ with greater relaxation of the IP and regulatory framework of countries, like India. The situation prompts striking a right balance between encouraging more profit by helping to extend patent exclusivity and encouraging greater access to off-patent cheaper Biosimilars as soon as the basic patent expires.

The bottom-line is, both need to be actively encouraged, even if it requires new laws to discourage practices like, creating patent thickets or undermining the use of generics or Biosimilars, and the likes. The good news is lawmakers have started deliberating on this issue – along with increasing public awareness, which gets reflected in the pharma industry’s current reputation ratings.

Left unresolved soon, such piggyback ride on ‘access to drug innovation’ bandwagon to serve self-serving interests, would continue denying speedy entry of cheaper Biosimilars. From this perspective, it isn’t difficult to fathom, why unfettered access to drug innovation is considered an oxymoron, by many.

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.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.