Novartis AG Stocking Up on "Big-3" Arthritis Blockbusters to Get an Edge on Rivals

Published: Jul 14, 2017

Novartis Stocking Up on July 14, 2017
By Mark Terry, Breaking News Staff

Zurich, Switzerland – Novartis appears to be doubling down on arthritis biosimilars.

Essentially generics of biologics medications, biosimilars are near-copies of already marketed drugs. Novartis’s biosimilar of Amgen ’s Enbrel was approved in the European Union (EU) in May. Novartis also plans to submit applications for biosimilars for Johnson & Johnson ’s Remicade and AbbVie (ABBV)’s Humira.

Reuters writes that, “Novartis generics unit Sandoz contends having knock-offs of all three big ‘anti-TNF’ drugs against disorders such as psoriasis, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis will raise its portfolio’s allure for cash-strapped health systems.”

Some of these drugs, such as Humira, are facing stiff competition. Just today, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved J&J’s new drug, Tremfya, for adults with moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis who are candidates for systemic therapy or phototherapy. The drug has shown to be much more effective than Humira in at least one trial, and is being evaluated against Novartis’ Cosentyx (secukinumab) for moderate-to-severe plaque psoriasis.

In an email to Reuters, Sandoz’s biosimilars development head, Carol Lynch, said, “We can leverage resources across multiple products when commercializing and can offer disease management solutions based on the full portfolio, rather than just product-specific offerings.”

And Novartis isn’t alone in developing biosimilars for the arthritis market. South Korean company Samsung Biologics is also developing copycats of Remicade, Enbrel and Humira.

On the surface, it seems that they will end up cannibalizing their own markets, but experts indicate that due to disease variation, doctor preference and payer practices, multi-drug offerings can be positive. It also varies greatly from country to country.

Reuters notes that, “In Nordic countries, where biosimilar adoption has been rapid, government-set pricing may favor one medicine one year, another the next.”

On the other hand, in Switzerland, rheumatology patients are typically treated in small private practices that don’t have infusion facilities. Remicade is given to patients as an infusion, whereas Enbrel and Humira are self-injectable.

Alex Finckh, a physician with Geneva University Hospital, told Reuters, “You find a different trend in the U.S., where Remicade and other infusion therapies can be favored by the rheumatologists, who make money by administering these therapies in their offices.”

And, of course, not all patients respond the same way, so there’s a certain amount of trial-and-error in finding the right dose. Finckh notes, “Within 1-1/2 years, half of patients will have switched.”

Meanwhile, even while it’s trying to develop biosimilars to popular arthritis drugs, Sandoz is pushing its own Cosentyx as being better than Enbrel. Lynch told Reuters, “Anti-TNF’s continue to be a cornerstone in the treatment of immune diseases. Having all the major products in the portfolio supports the (company’s) leadership position in immunology.”

But it does sound like a balancing act. Making biosimilars an option was designed to increase competition, improve patient access and drive down drug prices for expensive biologics. Good for patients, but maybe not so good for the biopharma industry.

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