Celltrion’s Rituximab Biosimilar Earns Positive Review

The information package released by reviewers for the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) indicates that a positive recommendation for Celltrion’s rituximab biosimilar is likely at the Advisory Committee meeting on October 10.

The members of the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee will review the data and hear public comments before voting to recommend that the FDA ultimately approve or reject CT-P10 for the treatment of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Celltrion did not perform clinical trials for rituximab’s autoimmune indications. However, if the FDA approves CT-P10, it may extrapolate the approval to other indications as well.

The orirituximab biosimilarginal 351(k) application by Celltrion in April 2017 resulted in a complete response letter from the FDA. The rejection for this rituximab biosimilar cited multiple deficiencies, including “clinical, product quality, and facility” problems, as well as clinical study issues from the original submission.

According to the FDA reviewers, “In considering the totality of the evidence, the data submitted by [Celltrion] show that CT-P10 is highly similar to US-licensed Rituxan®, notwithstanding minor differences in clinically inactive compounds, and support a demonstration that there are no clinically meaningful differences between CT-P10 and US-licensed Rituxan in terms of safety, purity, and potency of the product.”

BR&R will cover the Oncology Drug Advisory Committee meeting and provide updates on its decision. If this rituximab biosimilar is eventually approved by the FDA, Teva would market the product in North America, based on a previous partnership agreement.

In other biosimilar news…Merck has inked an exclusive contract to supply its biosimilar infliximab (Renflexis®) with the US Department of Veterans Affairs. According to a report from Pharmaphorum, it will be the only infliximab biosimilar on the VA’s national formulary.

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.

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 US Biosimilar Revenues Growing Slowly, Better News Internationally

According to an article posted on the Market Realist website, Pfizer’s US and global biosimilars revenues are growing, but its sales of Inflectra® remainPfizer Headquarters stunted.

In the fourth-quarter of 2017, the New York–based company posted US biosimilar revenues of $44 million—all attributable to its infliximab biosimilar. The product was launched in Q4 2016 (and gained only $4 million in revenues), but the revenue was reported to be somewhat higher than in Q3 2017. Total 2017 Inflectra revenue was $118 million.

Internationally, where Pfizer not only markets Inflectra, but its Retacrit® form of epoetin alpha and its Nivestim® brand of filgrastim, biosimilars contributed $531 million to the bottom line in 2017, an increase of 37% compared to the previous year.

There is little doubt that Pfizer’s US Inflectra revenues will continue to increase, but competition from Samsung/Merck’s Renflexis® and Janssen Biotech’s continuing heavy rebates on Remicade® should prove challenging to Pfizer. Merck has not yet reported its Q3 or Q4 sales of Renflexis, which was only launched in July 2017.

Pfizer’s second US biosimilar approval was also for an infliximab biosimilar (a legacy product from its Hospira acquisition). This agent, infliximab-qbtx, dubbed Ixifi™, was approved in December 2017 and will apparently not be launched in the US.

 

Its next big splash into the US biosimilars market may not occur in 2018. Its rituximab biosimilar (PF-05280586) met its primary outcomes measures in a phase 3 trial, as announced in January, but no target date has been yet reported for its 351(k) application to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, this product may face stiff competition from Celltrion and Sandoz for their rituximab biosimilars currently being reviewed by the FDA. Celltrion is partnered with Mylan (not Pfizer) in the commercialization of its rituximab biosimilar.

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.

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.

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.

 

What Happens When Switching Among Biosimilars?

Late last year, I wrote about a biosimilar challenge that could be on the horizon. With the approval of the second infliximab biosimilar (infliximab-abda by Samsung Bioepis), that horizon is a lot closer. However, we are no closer to understanding how to address the issue.

When Renflexis™ is launched in October (it is unknown whether the US Supreme Court ruling that wiped away the 180-day postapproval waiting period will affect this), 3 noninterchangeable versions of infliximab will be available. Based on patient turnover in health plans, the following scenario will soon occur.

 

Lee 2
Image Copyright 2017 by Lee Fogel

Mr. Jones, a 39-year-old man with Crohn’s disease, works for a large self-funded employer. He has been taking Remicade®, the reference product, for some time. In January 2018, his employer decides to change its plan offerings. His new health plan does not cover Remicade, favoring Inflectra® (infliximab-dyyb) instead. He could seek a medical exception to continue on Remicade, but his new plan actually offers considerable incentives to switch, including significantly lower cost sharing. After discussing the situation with his doctor, he makes the change, and experiences much the same clinical results. In 2019, his employer makes another change in plan. And this plan covers Renflexis on the specialty tier but has Remicade available on the higher-cost nonpreferred specialty tier. He and his physician are unsure of the best move.

Keep in mind that it would be rare and probably makes little sense for a health plan to cover both biosimilars and the reference product. At some point, the plan will seek a contract that leverages marketshare. In the scenario above, at what point does the patient unduly risk the development of neutralizing or antidrug antibodies?

No data have been published on switches among 3 biosimilar products. These agents are not designated as interchangeable—though Pfizer’s Inflectra may be closest to it based on its NOR-SWITCH investigations; therefore, no one is truly confident of what might or might not occur with regard to efficacy or safety. I suspect it may be some time before switches among reference product, biosimilar A, biosimilar B, or even biosimilar C may be considered routine.

Patients receiving biologic products for serious chronic diseases may also be subject to case/care management. This is not a clean transition when changing health plans. The situation described above will likely happen in the near future with infliximab and possibly adalimumab (once the patent litigation is cleared). It would be a good idea for health plans and insurers to start reviewing their options now to ensure both patient safety and cost-effective decision making.