Making a Cheap Drug Expensive: Sanofi’s Efforts in the U.K Draw Some Flack
Last summer, Sanofi’s (SNY) Genzyme unit attempted to navigate a tricky and potentially explosive situation. The drugmaker publicly disclosed plans to withdraw its Campath medication for leukemia from some 60 markets, including the US and the European Union, in hopes of eliminating off-label use to treat multiple sclerosis.
Why? A lower-dose formulation to be called Lemtrada is awaiting regulatory approval for multiple sclerosis, and analysts expect the drug to generate up to $400 million by 2016 for this particular indication. By comparison, Campath last year delivered $76 million in sales, according to The Pink Sheet.
Anticipating criticism that its move was motivated purely by profits, Genzyme instituted a program that offers Campath, which can cost up to $60,000 annually, to leukemia patients free of charge under a patient access program. But the drug is being made available to treat multiple sclerosis patients only through clinical trials, and some UK doctors are furious.
In their view, the move is designed to eventually migrate multiple sclerosis patients to a much more expensive drug. Although Genzyme has not disclosed planned pricing for Lemtrada, a few prominent neurologists last week wrote the UK health minister over concerns that the medication may cost up to 20 times higher than Campath and that patients are being harmed.
The decision has “serious implications for vulnerable UK patients with MS,” because patients who have already started treatment with Campaith will “not be able to get their vital second course.” Meanwhile, newly diagnosed patients may “miss their window of therapeutic opportunity” to start treatment, putting them at risk of “progressive, severe disability.”
The maneuver, they continued, established an “inappropriate precedent,” and “shows little regard for patients whose opportunity to alter the course of their disease is time-limited, and may represent an over-enthusiastic attempt by the parent company to profit from the current situation.”
The letter, which was reported by The Independent, was sent by Neil Scolding of the University of Bristol, Neil Robertson of the University Hospital of Wales and John Zajicek of the University of Plymouth. In an e-mail to us, Robertson confirmed the contents of the letter, but declined to further discuss his concerns until the health minister replies.
However, Zajicek told the paper he has treated about 150 patients with the drug, and up to 500 in the UK have received it. “Many of us think it is the best drug for patients with aggressive MS in the early stages of the disease. It’s the greedy behavior of the drug company that upsets me,” he said. “They are just trying to rebrand it and put the price up. It is morally corrupt.”
Their sentiment was shared by Doug Brown, who heads biomedical research at the Multiple Sclerosis Society in he UK. The drug “shows real promise as a potentially new medicine for many people with relapsing-remitting MS. There is no good reason why people with MS who have been allowed to benefit from the treatment should now be denied it.
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Ed Silverman is the editor of Pharmalot and a contributor to YCharts, which includes the just-released YCharts Pro Platinum for professional investors.