Will the Government Shutdown Slow Biosimilar Approvals?

The partial federal government shutdown is having specific effects in various important areas of government, but it may not be particularly troubling for FDA user-fee funded activities.

Scott Gottlieb, MD, Commissioner of the FDA, has been especially busy on Twitter, trying to inform the public how the government shut down is affecting FDA operations. He made it clear that the agency is prioritizing its efforts on ensuring consumer safety.

During an extended tweet storm (the past 7 days), he has not directly addressed the effect of the shutdown on current drug approvals. However, since the pharmaceutical companies have paid into the drug approval activities of the Center for Drug Evaluation and Review, there may be sufficient funds and resources for ongoing approval activities. In a tweet last week, Dr. Gottlieb mentioned that FDA was bringing onto staff several new user-fee funded staffers. Yet, in a January 7 tweet, he promised additional information on how the shutdown would affect biosimilars; this has not yet been addressed.

In terms of biosimilars, two trastuzumab drug makers are expecting FDA decisions this quarter (Pfizer and Samsung Bioepis). However, Pfizer’s biosimilar launch is subject to a licensing agreement with Genentech (Roche), the maker of the reference product Herceptin®. Therefore, if there was a short delay in FDA approval, it will not likely have a material effect on availability for prescription. We anticipate that Pfizer will also be hearing from the FDA on its rituximab biosimilar in the second quarter.

This could raise a secondary problem with the shutdown: Will the current furlough cause a chain reaction of delays in the evaluation of existing biologic licensing applications? How long might it take the full FDA staff to catch up, if that is the case?

In a January 13 tweet, Dr. Gottlieb said, “The lapse in funding represents one of the most significant operational challenges in FDA’s recent history. But as an agency, we’re committed to fulfilling our consumer protection mandate, to the best of our abilities, under our current configuration.”

In other biosimilar news… A January 10 story in The Pink Sheet reported that Leah Christl, PhD, Associate Director of Therapeutic Biologics at FDA intends to depart the agency in the near future (a specific date was not given).

Rituximab Biosimilar Approved by FDA for Cancer Treatment

On November 28, 2018, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced the approval of rituximab-abbs (Truxima™), produced by Celltrion and marketed by Teva.

Approval for this rituximab biosimilar was overwhelmingly recommended by the FDA’s Oncology Drug Advisory Committee by a vote of 16-0 in October. It is the first biosimilar agent approved for the treatment of relapsed or refractory, low grade, or follicular non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma—specifically in adult patients with the CD20+ B-cell variety. The drug makers did not seek approval for the Rituxan’s autoimmune indications, and the FDA did not grant extrapolated approval for them.

rituximab biosimilarAccording to the FDA’s announcement, the most common side effects of Truxima are infusion reactions, fever, abnormally low level of lymphocytes in the blood (lymphopenia), chills, infection and weakness (asthenia). Health care providers are advised to monitor patients for tumor lysis syndrome (a complication of treatment where tumor cells are killed off at the same time and released into the bloodstream), cardiac adverse reactions, damage to kidneys (renal toxicity), and bowel obstruction and perforation.

This leaves a wide open marketing window for Celltrion and Teva, as Sandoz announced in late October that it was halting its effort to bring its own rituximab biosimilar to the market. There is no word as of this writing regarding the launch and pricing of Truxima in the US. This also represents the second FDA approval for Celltrion; its infliximab biosimilar, Inflectra, was approved in 2016.

In Other Biosimilar News… As BR&R reported in our October discussion with Molly Burich, MS, Director, Public Policy: Biosimilars and Pipeline, Boehringer Ingelheim had decided to forego marketing its adalimumab biosimilar Cyltezo® in the EU. This is likely owing to the highly competitive environment and the huge pricing discounts being signed by European countries. However, Boehringer has now announced its intention to discontinue all efforts to market and develop any biosimilars outside of the US market. This may come as little surprise, as the Boehringer biosimilar pipeline was not aggressively stocked. Instead, it has been focused on seeking interchangeability status for Cyltezo and to launch this product as soon as possible.

Lessons for Biosimilars From the Generic Drug Industry

The utilization of generics in the US is vast, upwards of 86% of all prescriptions in 2017, according to the latest research by IQVIA. The pace of generic drug approvals by the Food and Drug Administration is also impressive, with 767 last year. This does not ensure the future of the generic drug industry, however, said Doug Long, MBA, IQVIA’s Vice President of Industry Relations. If we’re not careful, biosimilars in the pipeline could suffer a fate similar to that for newly approved generics.

Doug Long, IQVIA
Doug Long, IQVIA

In his yearly update presented at the Academy of Managed Care Pharmacy 2018 annual meeting on April 25, Mr. Long said that despite near-record numbers of generic approvals over a three-year period, “only 30% of these generics were actually launched. That’s not happened before.” The reason is that the manufacturers, upon receiving approval, reevaluate the marketplace prospects for their product and the competition. “They decide not to throw additional money into a losing proposition,” he stated. In fact, of the 767 generic approvals, only 73 were first-time generics. Ninety percent were simply piling competition onto already crowded drug categories.

He terms it a race to the bottom, but not a death spiral for generics. That is, “we’ve already reached the bottom, and we will come off of it” at some point. Generic drug manufacturers’ reticence to launch will help change the market direction.

Biosimilars have vast potential to save health care dollars, but only if they are launched. In a couple of instances, manufacturers have reviewed their biosimilar positions (Shire, EMD Serono) while early in the pipeline. Though it is reasonable to expect a paring back of prospective biosimilar drug makers, we hoped this would happen once the marketplace becomes saturated. That of course has not happened.

More Evidence of Value in Generics

Although several generic drugs have been associated with steep price increases, the net price change in 2017 for generics was -7.2%, according to Mr. Long. Most of this was the result of large rebates. Despite 86% generic drug prescribing, generics account for only 13% of the revenues. “I think there will be more generic drug shortages as a result of this revenue picture. People are refusing to launch after receiving approval, based on the dynamics of the marketplace,” he said. There will be more patent expirations and opportunities for first-time generics, “but I have less optimism on the biosimilar side.”

“Of 9 biosimilar approvals, we have only 3 launched products,” emphasized Mr. Long, “accounting for just $1 billion in total value of US marketplace in biosimilars.” He was hopeful that biosimilars for Remicade would have “broken the dam,” but this hasn’t happened. “Instead, payers have chosen to take the rebates, not the biosimilars. That resulted in only a 3% marketshare as a result for infliximab biosimilars.”

He noted that the average rebates given to payers and pharmacy benefit managers is 25% for biologics overall. Rebates in the autoimmune area averaged 20%, but payer market research routinely confirms that Janssen’s Remicade® rebates well exceed this figure.

Note: IQVIA is the child of the marriage between Quintiles and IMS.