Infliximab Biosimilars Savings Could Exceed $400 Million Dollars Annually

Everyone with an opinion believes that biosimilar drug use will save the health system considerable money. Calculations for biosimilar savings have been hampered by several factors. For example, previous high estimates have not been based on real-life scenarios. Only 3 biosimilars have been launched and utilized in the US; so little experience has been gained on which to base calculations.

Yet, isolating the savings associated with a single approved biosimilar does put their potential into perspective. It also demonstrates the promise of cumulative biosimilar savings with their launch and uptake. Based on current infliximab average sales prices (ASPs), wBiosimilar Savingshich considers discounts and rebates, one organization believes that a 50% marketshare for biosimilar infliximab could result in well over $400 million in annual savings system wide.

The analysis, conducted by Wayne H. Winegarden, PhD, Senior Fellow in Business and Economics, Pacific Research Institute, accrued the lion’s share of the annual savings to employer-sponsored health plans ($262 million to $315 million, compared with no sales of infliximab biosimilars). Medicare accounted for up to $150 million savings annually.

Dr. Winegarden tested several scenarios. The calculation considered the cost of the infliximab regimen based its various indications. He calculated biosimilar savings using different add-on percentages to ASP (including the current ASP + 4.3% payment and up to ASP + 20%), as well as different marketshares of the biosimilars (from 10% to 90%).

The current marketshare of the two available infliximab biosimilars—Inflectra® and Renflexis®is below 5%, based on data from the first quarter of this year. This is partly because of Janssen’s tactics in matching the net costs of biosimilars with additional rebates on Remicade. This raises two important points: Dr. Winegarden’s analysis reveals savings accruing to the health care system (not necessarily to the payer). Also, the very existence of infliximab biosimilars has resulted in significant net savings compared with the price increases seen prior to their introduction.

It is a bit more difficult to pinpoint the system savings resulting from the use of the first biosimilar approved in the US, filgrastim-sndz (Zarxio®). The other branded product, tbo-filgrastim (Granix®), was launched a couple of years earlier and gained its own marketshare from the reference brand Neupogen®. No doubt, Zarxio contributed to some level of cost savings. In other words, the infliximab example is an easier calculation with a cleaner result.

With eight biosimilars for six reference products awaiting their turn to hit the market, and drugs like adalimumab and etanercept among them, it is easy to see how biosimilars savings can easily exceed $10 billion. Just not yet.

Is Celltrion Paving a New Road for Biosimilars? A New Route of Administration Being Tested for Infliximab

When payers, patients, or physicians discuss biosimilars, they assume that the biosimilar works just like the reference product. They also assume that the biosimilar is administered in the same way as the originator biologic. Celltrion is actively researching a new subcutaneous infliximab. This could result in a first for the biosimilar industry.

Sponsored by Celltrion and conducted in multiple sites, the research results were announced at the annual meeting of the European Congress of Rheumatology in June. The investigators presented outcomes data on the use of a subcutaneous (SC) form of infliximab-dyyb. Currently, infliximab is only available as an intravenous (IV) infusion at the physician’s office that takes at least 2 hours. Subcutaneous infliximab was given on a biweekly basis.

subcutaneous infliximabThe researchers studied 48 patients with rheumatoid arthritis, finding that outcomes were not clinically different through 30 weeks of follow-up. Three dosages were tested, and in this small study, no ACR20 differences were reported in any subgroup receiving infliximab infusions or SC injections.

Hypersensitivity reactions did occur in one patient each receiving the lowest dose (90 mg) SC and the middle dose (120 mg). None were seen in the group receiving the highest infliximab SC dose (180 mg). Injection site reactions occurred in two patients apiece in the 90 mg and 180 mg dose cohorts. receiving subcutaneous infliximab. The formation of antidrug antibodies was detected in nine patients receiving the standard infusion, but less than half that number in each of the subcutaneous groups.

Currently, infliximab treatment requires a lengthy office visit for each infusion (every 8 wk in the maintenance phase). It is one of the key limiting factors to its use. A self-injectable formulation should result in lower administration costs, and the potential for covering the agent through the pharmacy benefit.

A phase 1, open-label trial of subcutaneous infliximab has already been conducted by Celltrion in patients with Crohn’s disease. That trial found similar outcomes between the SC and IV formulations. Another phase 1 trial is wrapping up, this one evaluating safety and pharmacokinetics in healthy volunteers. Celltrion is also sponsoring a phase 3 trial of more than 300 patients with rheumatoid arthritis. Preliminary results will not be available until December 2018.

It is not yet clear, however, what type of data the Food and Drug Administration would require for approval of a new formulation of a biosimilar. The regulatory agency may decide to treat this as it would a new route of administration for any approved product, which would focus on pharmacokinetic and pharmacology factors. Celltrion seems to be covering all of its bases.

Plans Use Step Therapy to Encourage Utilization of Remicade Over Biosimilars

Health plans and insurers are not yet turning to biosimilar infliximab as a preferred therapy, according to Gillian Woollett, DPhil, MA, of Avalere. Her new report surveyed publicly available policy about health plans across the nation. The principal finding was that step therapy was commonly used  to encourage use of the originator product.

In fact, just one health plan (representing 1% of the 172 million lives covered in this study) supported the use of either Inflectra® or Renflexis® over the reference product Remicade® through step therapy. One plan (2% of the covered lives) allowed the use of either the originator product or Inflectra as a first step.

Gillian Woollett of Avalere on step therapy and biosimilars
Gillian Woollett

Four of the 18 plans with publicly available information did not utilize step-therapy rules for any forms of infliximab. However, “10 of the 18 plans (55% of plans, 52% of covered lives) require the use of [Remicade] first, alone or in combination with another DMARD,” stated Dr. Woollett in the report. A total of 81% of the covered lives from these 18 plans were subject to step therapies limiting access to one infliximab product or the other.

On its face, this type of step policy makes a bit of sense. Step therapies are often used alone or part of prior authorization mechanisms to make sure patients try more cost-effective agents first. In rheumatoid arthritis, that may comprise use of nonbiologic drugs before proceeding to a TNF inhibitor and then to another biologic in patients with rheumatoid arthritis. However, there is no proven benefit (or even logic) to offering a biosimilar infliximab after failing Remicade, or vice versa. If there was a significant clinically relevant difference in immunogenicity, this could be an issue, but this also has not been seen in practice. It makes more sense to try another anti-TNF or perhaps even move to an interleukin inhibitor—something with a different (or slightly different) mode of action.

A policy such as this can confuse the issue for patients, whose knowledge of biosimilars seems tenuous, and even providers, some of whom have little experience prescribing them, particularly because of payers’ Remicade-first policies.

The Avalere report provides some support for how payers are arresting utilization of biosimilar infliximab in favor of the originator infliximab product.

Dr. Woollett paints a very different picture for subcutaneously administered filgrastim products. Forty-nine percent of the covered lives (five large plans) had policies favoring Zarxio®, whereas 27% of covered lives were encouraged to use Neupogen® first.  For these 18 plans, five (28% of plans, 49% of covered lives) demonstrate a preference for the biosimilar, filgrastim-sndz. Five (28% of plans, 27% of covered lives) demonstrate a preference for the reference filgrastim. Eight plans (44% of plans, 24% of covered lives) do not indicate a preference through formulary design. A further 24% were not subject to any preference.

Pfizer’s At-Risk Launch of Inflectra Pays Off (at Least a Bit)

The US Court of Appeals handed Pfizer a big victory in its gamble to bring its biosimilar version of Remicade® to the market before the completion of patent litigation. On January 23, the Appeals Court ruled that Johnson & Johnson’s ‘471 patent in the case was declared invalid, clearing the way for sales of Inflectra® (infliximab-dyyb). Had Pfizer lost the suit, J&J could have sought Inflectra’s (and Samsung/Merck’s Renflexis®’s) revenues in addition to other damage claims.

Remicade’s ‘471 patent expiration was September 2018, but the US Patent and Trademark Office earlier ruling contended that the antibodies at the center of this patent were already included in patents that had previously expired.

Remicade is manufactured and sold by J&J’s subsidiary, Janssen Biotech.

In a widely publicized case, Pfizer sued J&J in September 2017 for anticompetitive practices, which it believes held down the sales of Inflectra to a spare $74 million for the first three quarters of last year. Although J&J is seeking to appeal the decision, with the patent expiration date looming, as well as limited sales of Inflectra, this would seem to be of relatively little benefit.

In any case, J&J is wary of losing marketshare and revenues on Remicade. According to Bloomberg News, Janssen Biotech saw fourth-quarter revenues from the biologic drop almost 10%, to $1.47 billion. Increasing competition from other biologics for similar indications and other biosimilar versions of infliximab worldwide have contributed to reduced sales.

A Pre-Holiday Gift for Pfizer—a Second Infliximab Biosimilar Approval. Now What?

On December 14, Pfizer got an early Christmas present, the approval by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) of the second infliximab biosimilar in which it has a stake. First came Inflectra® in 2016, and here comes Ixifi™ (infliximab-qbtx). Unlike Inflectra, which Pfizer markets for Celltrion, Ixifi is Pfizer’s alone—Web image for headera product that was under development at the time of the acquisition.

This of course puts Pfizer in an interesting position. Ixifi would be the third infliximab biosimilar to reach the market, after Inflectra and Samsung/Merck’s Renflexis™. True, Inflectra has limited marketshare in the US, and competition from more heavily discounted Renflexis could compound the situation.

It seems that Ixifi is not intended to reach the US market at all, and may be marketed in other countries where the Celltrion agreement does not hold sway. However, this begs the question: Why did Pfizer decide to go apply for a 351(k) application for FDA approval? That is unclear at this time. Perhaps they will use this biosimilar as insurance if Inflectra does not perform as promised. On the other hand, Pfizer could license it to another manufacturer and collect additional royalties from its sales in the US and overseas.

For those of you who guessed the last choice, congratulations! Under a deal signed in early 2016, Sandoz obtained the rights to market this agent in the European Economic Area. This would enable Pfizer to earn cash rewards and other prizes from two biologics in the same biosimilar category.

Pfizer Sues J&J on Anticompetitive Practices on Infliximab in the US

In late May, Merck was named in a UK lawsuit by Pfizer, which has been trying to expand its market for Inflectra®. Merck, which markets Remicade® (infliximab) in the EU, was accused of anticompetitive practices. On September 20, Pfizer brought a similar complaint against Johnson & Johnson (the parent of Janssen and the manufacturer of Remicade®) in the US, according to a lawsuit filed in US District Court (Eastern District of Pennsylvania).

Whereas Pfizer has made some inroads to the US market, since its launch at the end of 2016, Janssen has done a good job of blocking and tackling—playing the contracting game. The lawsuit claims that Janssen has withheld or threatened to withhold rebates if payers do not keep Remicade in an exclusive preferred position. Pfizer may have invited such action to an extent by entering the market at a 15% discount to the originator’s wholesale acquisition cost (WAC). Many experts expected this type of approach by Janssen. Payers were candid in their reluctance to switch to the biosimilar, especially if Janssen would counter the modest discount with rebates that narrow or eliminate the difference in net costs. In other words, a greater discounted price may have opened the market to Pfizer more rapidly, because Janssen may have been less aggressive in its efforts to match the net cost.

In an August earnings call, Pfizer indicated that although Medicare is covering Inflectra, its overall US marketshare was only 2.3%.

According to the press release announcing Pfizer’s lawsuit, “[Johnson & Johnson’s] exclusionary contracts and other anticompetitive practices have denied U.S. patients access to therapeutic options and undermined the benefits of robust price competition in the innovative and growing biologics marketplace for patients… J&J’s systematic efforts to maintain its monopoly in connection with Remicade® (infliximab) by inappropriately excluding biosimilar competitors violates federal antitrust laws and undermines the principal goals of the federal Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act (BPCIA).”

This may be the first time that routine contracting efforts to defend against generic competition and maintain a monopoly within a drug category have been cited as a violation of antitrust legislation. What may have amplified Pfizer’s ire was its assertion that several insurers originally placed Inflectra at parity coverage with Remicade. These payers changed their position after “J&J threatened to withhold significant rebates unless insurers agreed to effectively block coverage for Inflectra and other infliximab biosimilars.”

Furthermore, the suit claims that clinicians and hospitals were reluctant to purchase Inflectra, with the belief that insurers may not reimburse them for its use. These providers may have been further influenced by an insistence by J&J on their signing contracts that dictated significant discounts on Remicade only if they would not purchase Remicade or other infliximab biosimilars.

At this time, Inflectra is priced at an average 19% discount to Remicade’s wholesale acquisition cost (WAC). Pfizer says that it is offering additional discounts on top of this to persuade payers into covering their biosimilar. Merck’s launch of its own biosimilar infliximab (Renflexis®) comes with a price tag of 35% below that of Remicade, which adds tremendous pressure on payers to reconsider their positions. This also signals the early closing of Pfizer’s window of opportunity as the first biosimilar entrant, on which it gambled an at-risk launch.

The Week in Biosimilar News

You know it’s been a pretty desperate week in the biosimilar blogosphere when twitter feeds relate back to articles published in January, rehashes of the US Supreme Court decision in June, or yet another estimate of the savings potentially ascribed to biosimilar use (based on erroneous assumptions). However, there were a few significant tidbits announced last week that are worth reviewing.

First, Biocon announced that the decision to approve its trastuzumab biosimilar (with partner Mylan) has been delayed by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) 3 months (until December 3, 2017). According to Biocon, this delay was required so that the FDA could “review some of the clarificatory information submitted as part of the application review process.” Clarificatory? Really? Maybe the extra time was needed to translate the application itself.

Second, a survey of 103 US gastroenterologists raised a couple of questions as to how well information about Inflectra®, the biosimilar to Remicade®, is sinking in on the practice level. According to a press release from Spherix Global Insights, cross-category prescribing may be interfering with the uptake of the biosimilar. They state, “not only is the decline [in Remicade prescriptions] attributed to the adoption of infliximab biosimilars, but use of Humira® has also significantly increased, potentially indicating that more ulcerative colitis patients are being placed on Humira to avoid insurance mandates for infliximab biosimilar use.” This limited survey found that more than one-third of gastroenterologists “agree that if a pharmacy or managed care plan advises them to use Inflectra over Remicade, that they are more likely to choose a different TNF-inhibitor altogether.” This is a weird finding, perhaps indicating nothing more than spite for the health plan’s benefit design. Clearly, if the physicians fully considered the evidence, they would be less likely to prescribe in this way. Admittedly, as notable numbers of managed care organizations have not actually mandated Inflectra use at this point in time, we would have to wait to see if this opinion is validated in actual practice.

Finally, Sanofi announced that it had received tentative approval on a follow-on biologic form of insulin lispro (the originator product was Lilly’s Humalog®). Patent issues will have to be resolved before Sanofi can receive final approval and bring this product to the market. The insulin biosimilars are not regulated under the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act, but rather under the Hatch–Waxman Act—the application was filed as a 505(b)2 rather than a 351(k) variety. They are transitional products, which will considered under the newer regulations after March 23, 2020. We will detail these lesser-known transitional drug categories in a future post.

Biosimilars and Generics: Are the Drug Companies Using Similar Tactics?

The rebate game seems to be overrunning patient affordability and common sense, according to an article in the New York Times. This has been a problem for biosimilars and other high-cost specialty brands, but now it seems to be extending to generics as well, with patients on the losing end of the deal.

Pharmaceutical manufacturers offer rebates to health plans and pharmacy benefit managerLee 2s to offset a drug’s higher wholesale acquisition costs (WAC) and entice these payers to cover their drug, often at preferred tiers. The result is that new products can be locked out of the formulary or placed on nonpreferred tiers, because the contract requires exclusivity. This has been called the “rebate trap.” The rebate trap was never really a problem for generics in the past, because they were far less expensive than the brands, and with generics made by several companies, the price and rebating competition was too fierce for branded manufacturers to compete.

The New York Times article cited the case of Adderall XR for people with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). The drug has been available as a generic for some time. However, Adderall’s manufacturer, Shire Laboratories, has aggressively rebated their product to compete with the generic, providing a net cost to the health plans and PBMs that is less than the generic. Shire wants to retain some revenues on their products rather than leave the battle to the generic manufacturers. There is nothing wrong with that, and it results in lower net costs—but not for many patients.

First, if the plan has a substantial copayment difference for generics and preferred products, this can mean the average patient will have to pay the higher amount (unless the plan makes adjustments and allows the patient to purchase the brand at the generic copayment level). Second, the rising number of people with high deductible plans (including pharmacy deductibles) will have to pay the higher full price of the branded drug than the generic (according to the Times’ sources, this is about $50/mo). Thus, until they have paid their deductible, these patients are disadvantaged by this rebate arrangement. Consider also that the rebate savings to the payer are rarely, if ever, passed on to the patient.

Here’s the kicker: The pharmacist may be required by the plan to go back to the doctor to ask that they redo their prescription, by checking off the box that requires it be dispensed as written (for the branded product only). This is after generations of pharmacists have been trained on automatic substitution of generics for brands and patients have been persuaded to accept it.

Although the problem is very evident with ADHD, the lack of multisource generics means less competition for other drug classes as well. This is not limited to one payer either. The article mentioned Humana specifically, but it is likely that other payers (national and regional) are also party to these contracts.

This scenario can also hurt competition for biosimilars. Before the entry of Merck’s Renflexis®, Janssen had only contended in the infliximab marketplace with Pfizer’s Inflectra®. Janssen has been willing to cut deals with payers to keep Inflectra off the formulary. However, this could also affect some patients, even though infliximab, an infusible product given in the doctor’s office is usually paid through the medical not pharmacy benefit. If these drugs were covered with a fixed copayment (e.g., $100), patients would not be harmed economically by using any particular product. However, if the patient pays a fixed coinsurance (e.g., 10%), that person may then pay more for the originator drug, because the co-insurance is often calculated according to the WAC (which does not include the rebate) instead of the average sales price ASP (which does).

The problem of rebate traps and the lack of transparency of the system is not new. It may be a different situation if the manufacturer–payer transaction was based solely on simple WAC discounts. There is simply too much rebate money up for grabs for plans and PBMs that the system can be changed easily.

Inflectra Sales Lagging for Pfizer in Second Quarter

Pfizer announced some disappointing results for the second quarter in its quest to advance a foothold in the biosimilar market. The second-quarter results hinted at more difficulties to come for the Inflectra® brand, with the most recent launch of Merck’s Renflexis®.

Amid somewhat positive signs with group purchasing organizations, which supply hospitals and health systems, commercial health plans have lagged in covering the product. On the earnings call, John Young, Pfizer’s Group President for Pfizer Essential Health, said that in the second quarter, “our Inflectra share was 2.3% of the overall infliximab volume,” including both patients who had not used infliximab before and those who switched to Inflectra. The total US revenue for the quarter was only $23 million. In Europe, sales were $94 million—better but not yet gaining the penetration of other biosimilars in the EU.

The 15% discounting strategy may have limited uptake by US health plans and insurers to date, but Janssen’s actions to defend marketshare have no doubt been effective. Pfizer’s most recent price drop, coinciding roughly with the launch of Merck’s (and Samsung Bioepis’) infliximab biosimilar, will likely muddy this picture in the near term.

Overall, Pfizer’s revenue decreased by 2% (to $12.9 billion) compared with the second quarter of 2016. This is not terrible, considering that its European revenues from Enbrel® (etanercept) continue to be under siege from biosimilars, dropping 20% compared with Q2 2016.

Pfizer’s pipeline remains robust, however, with 8 biosimilars in the works, including 4 in phase 3 trials. Its epoetin alfa product Retacrit® had been rejected by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) because of potential manufacturing concerns. The second-quarter financial report did not update its progress in discussions with FDA.

Merck Sharply Discounts Its Infliximab Biosimilar

In news that will likely be cheered by payers, Renflexis™, Merck and Samsung Bioepis’ entry into the infliximab marketplace, will launch at a significant discount, according to Merck.

Approved by the US Food and Drug Administration on April 21, 2017, Merck’s second-to-market biosimilar will be available immediately. What was truly noteworthy was the pricing: $753.39 per dose, which represents a 35% savings over the current list price of the originator product Remicade® (Janssen Biotech), and about 13% less than the list price of Inflectra®, the first biosimilar infliximab to be launched.

It appears that Merck is gambling that this pricing will help jumpstart marketshare, and perhaps gain serious consideration to payer coverage. It is, in fact, the first biosimilar of the 3 now available that has broken through the 15% discount (relative to the originator product) floor.

Some industry observers believe that this could be the start of a “race to the bottom,” similar to that seen in the multisource generics industry, but the biologics manufacturers may be more reluctant to engage in pricing wars that could result in 70% discounts. The key question will be how Janssen and Pfizer reacts to the introduction of infliximab-abda. According to our sources, Janssen has matched the net price of Inflectra by increasing its rebates to payer customers, retaining its preferred positioning.  [ERRATUM (7/31): In the original published version of the article, we indicated that Pfizer had preferred positioning deals for Inflectra with UnitedHealthCare and CVS Health. This is incorrect. UHC and CVS have given preferred positioning to Zarxio and Basaglar, not at present to Inflectra. We regret this error and hope it does not cause our readers any inconvenience.]

In a quirk that can only be imagined in the biosimilar arena, Merck owns the marketing rights for Janssen’s Remicade in Europe, so it is dedicated to defending an originator brand overseas while cutting this brand’s marketshare in US.

Our database on biosimilar filings indicates that no other infliximab 351(k) applications have been submitted (at least publicly announced), so it is reasonable to expect that no new market entrants will change the competitive dynamic before 2019.

UPDATE (7/26): An article in Bio-Pharm Reporter by Dan Stanton quoted Pfizer executives who say that Inflectra’s allowable ASP level to $753.40–the pricing level of Renflexis, essentially equaling the 35% discount relative to Remicade. However, the WAC price of Inflectra currently stands at 19% (not 15%) below that of Remicade.