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Roche To Sell Cheaper Cancer Drugs In India

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Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding plans to offer cut-price versions of two blockbuster cancer drugs for the Indian market soon, a company spokesman said on Friday, days after the government moved to slash the price of another cancer treatment.

This comes on the heels of India's move to strip German drugmaker Bayer of its exclusive rights to a cancer drug early this month and grant a compulsory licence for its cancer treatment Nexavar to Natco Pharma. The Bayer move has set a precedent that could extend to other treatments, including modern HIV/AIDS drugs, in a major blow to global pharmaceutical firms, experts say. The Indian Patent Office had effectively ended Bayer's monopoly for its Nexavar drug and issued its first-ever compulsory license allowing local generic maker Natco Pharma to make and sell the drug cheaply in India.

It is only the second time a nation has issued a compulsory license for a cancer drug after Thailand did so on four drugs between 2006 and 2008, also on affordability grounds. Thailand also issued licenses for HIV/AIDS and heart disease treatments.

The very next day, Pfizer Inc, the world's largest drugmaker, had scrapped a deal to sell insulin products made by Biocon Ltd, leaving India's biggest biotech company without a partner to sell the drugs in key global markets such as the United States.

It was considered that other patent rulings are imminent. A long-running case involving the granting of an Indian patent for Swiss drugmaker Novartis' cancer drug Glivec is expected to be heard in the country's Supreme Court this month. The case does not involve the issue of compulsory license, but it has also pitted advocates of free trade and intellectual property rights against pro-generics campaigners who say a ruling in favour of Novartis could see other drugs in India priced outside of the reach of most of the population.

Roche To Offer Herceptin, MabThera
Roche, the world's biggest maker of cancer drugs, said it would offer "significantly" cheaper, locally branded versions of its two cancer drugs, Herceptin and MabThera, by early next year, under an alliance with India's Emcure Pharmaceuticals.

"The scope is to enable access for a large majority of patients who currently pay out of pocket as well as to partner with the government to enable increased access to our products for people in need," spokesman Daniel Grotzky said by phone from company headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.

Monthly doses of Herceptin, for breast cancer, and MabThera, for cancers of the blood and lymph system, cost around $3,000 to $4,500 per patient at wholesale prices, Grotzky said.

"With this strategy, we expect to significantly increase the number of patients treated with our therapies and help patients currently under treatment to continue to use our products properly," he added.

He would not be drawn on how much the local versions would cost, nor whether Roche was responding to the Bayer case.

The move highlights a growing debate about the cost of modern cancer medicines, which often work far better than traditional chemotherapy but come at a much high price.

In other areas of medicines - notably HIV/AIDS drugs for Africa - drug companies have already cut prices substantially. More recently, some firms, including GlaxoSmithKline, have also been experimenting with discounts on certain products in middle-income countries.

However, Roche has in the past argued that consumers everywhere should pay the same price for its cancer drugs.

New Drug Names
The Swiss company said the cheaper versions would be renamed for the Indian market and be packed by Emcure Pharmaceuticals in an effort to gain market share, confirming an earlier report in the Wall Street Journal.

The decision to give the cheaper versions distinct names for the Indian market may help Roche limit the risk that wholesalers buy up the products and try and re-sell them in premium-priced markets such as the United States and Europe.

The trading of pharmaceuticals by middlemen, often via Internet pharmacies, is a growing headache for drug companies and can conceal counterfeits - as happened recently when fake copies of Avastin, another Roche drug, where shipped from the Middle East through Europe to California.

Under the deal with Emcure, Roche will continue to make the cancer medicines at its plants in the United States, Singapore and Germany and ship vials of the drugs to Emcure for packaging. Grotzky added that the alliance was triggered in part by India's desire to see global pharmaceutical companies sign partnerships with Indian companies.

In the Bayer case, the Indian government for the first time issued a so-called compulsory licence to local drugmaker Natco Pharma to make and sell a generic version of Bayer's Nexavar, a liver and kidney cancer drug, inside the country.

Under world trade rules, compulsory licences are available to nations to issue in certain cases where life-saving treatments are unaffordable.

With around 40 per cent of India's population living below the poverty line, healthcare is an upper-middle-class luxury.

Campaigners for cheaper access to drugs hailed the Bayer decision, which was taken after the country's patent office said Nexavar was not "reasonably affordably priced".

But the ruling reignited fears amongst global drugmakers like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. They see huge potential in rapidly growing economies such as India but are wary of intellectual property protection.

Natco will retail Nexavar at 8,800 rupees for a monthly dose, a fraction of the 280,000 rupees Bayer's version costs.

(BW Online Bureau with Agencies)