Alexion sues Canada over Soliris price cut attempt as drug cost debate explodes on center stage

Even as a war of words is being waged in the U.S. over escalating drug prices, Canada has been battling with Alexion ($ALXN) over the $700,000 cost of rare-disease drug Soliris, a drug that has been called the priciest in the world. But in a preemptive move, Alexion has sued regulators to prevent Canada from whacking the price.

The Cheshire, CT, drugmaker this month filed an action asking a federal court to put the kibosh on the hearing by Canada's Patented Medicine Prices Review Board and prevent it from issuing any order to cut the price of Soliris, CBC News reports.

Soliris is used to treat a couple of rare blood diseases that can kill red blood cells and cause anemia and lead to organ failure. In Canada, its cost runs $700,000 per patient per year, CBC reports, compared with $669,000 in the U.S. Because it is not a cure and must be taken on an ongoing basis, the cost can run to tens of millions of dollars over a lifetime, CBC points out. And because of the expense, some Canadian provinces will not cover it, meaning there are patients with the diseases who can not afford it. In the hearing, Canada has focused on the price discrepancy between the two countries and wants Alexion to repay the price difference to the government for those provinces that do pay for it.

Alexion, in response, contends the higher price in Canada simply reflects the difference in exchange rates between the U.S. and Canada. Anyway, it argues in court filings that the Canadian agency does not have the authority to force it to lower its price on its drug.

The high cost of Soliris has been questioned by payers before. England's price watchdog NICE initially declined to cover the drug until Alexion provided details to justify its cost. NICE relented last year even without getting what it considered a full disclosure from the company.

This battle in Canada comes even as the high costs of prescription drugs this week became the Twitter topic du jour. There was a social media frenzy, bashing Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli after his company hiked the price of its newly purchased toxoplasmosis drug Daraprim by more than 5000%. Shkreli castigated journalists on Twitter, including FierceBiotech Editor John Carroll, for asking him to justify the hike, tweeting that only a moron would ask that question. After an outpouring of criticism, Shkreli said he would walk back the price jump somewhat, without saying how much.

Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton used the dust-up over the Turing price hike as her entree into the debate on drug prices. She followed her opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders with a plan to control drug prices if elected, calling for a $250 cap on out-of-pockets drug costs for consumers, giving Medicare the ability to bargain over prices and other provisions, including a requirement that drugmakers spend certain levels of their revenues on R&D. When she first tweeted about the need to control prices and that she would unveil a plan, the markets responded by selling off biotech stocks, trimming billions of dollars in worth from the industry in a day.

- here's the CBC News story