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).