Did Novartis ($NVS) and Roche ($RHHBY) campaign against study data supporting cheap Avastin eye injections as a substitute for their own purpose-made vision drug Lucentis? The BMJ says they did, aiming to "undermine and divert attention" from trials pitting Lucentis against the much cheaper treatment. According to the journal, Novartis even tried to sway doctors away from participating in the clinical studies.
The stakes are high, given the fact that Lucentis brought in about $4.2 billion last year. Roche owns the med and markets it in the U.S., while Novartis sells it outside the U.S.
According to the BMJ, Roche refused to study Avastin as an eye treatment, despite pleas from U.K. officials. Then, Novartis scrambled to protect its U.K. Lucentis sales as publicly funded, head-to-head trials were planned and launched, and continued to fight back as study authors deemed Avastin a cost-effective alternative to Lucentis.
"[T]he manufacturers didn't want to do the trials themselves and when it was agreed that the public should fund both a comparative and a dosing trial, they did all they could to scupper them," the BMJ says.
It's just the latest round of accusations about underhanded competition in the eye drug market. Roche and Novartis were fined a total of €182 million for colluding to squeeze out the cheaper Avastin in Italy last year, while French authorities raided both companies' local offices, looking for evidence of collusion. EU regulators last July said they were eyeing the companies for potential antitrust violations. And in the wake of the Italian fines, that country's health ministry is seeking up to $1.6 billion in damages.
English eye doctors have called on the country's cost-effectiveness watchdogs and its pharma regulators to evaluate Avastin for eye use, which could open the door for the National Health Service to adopt the treatment. Previously, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence refused to weigh in, because the drug isn't officially approved for use in the eye--and given the fact that the drugmakers would have to ask for that approval, it's not likely to be forthcoming anytime soon.
Meanwhile, despite protests from Europe's pharma industry trade group, Italy and France have moved to allow Avastin as a substitute for Lucentis, saying the change would save them hundreds of millions of euros a year. Prices for the meds vary from country to country, but on average, they run about $60 for Avastin and $1,200 for Lucentis.
Special Reports: Top 15 pharma companies by 2014 revenue - Novartis | Roche