French watchdogs raid Novartis, Roche in Lucentis antitrust probe

 

The French Competition Authority has stepped up its probe of potential Lucentis price-fixing. As The Times of London reports, the antitrust regulators said they raided local offices of Roche and Novartis, looking for evidence of collusion.

According to a statement on the competition authority's website, regulators went on "search and confiscation" maneuvers Tuesday in their probe of treatments for wet age-related macular degeneration. The regulators didn't name the companies involved, but Roche ($RHHBY) and Novartis ($NVS) confirmed that competition authorities had launched the probe.

The raids follow a month after Italian watchdogs fined the two Swiss drugmakers in a similar case. According to the Italian Competition Authority, Roche and Novartis worked together to block Avastin, a cheaper alternative to Lucentis, their injectable drug for wet age-related macular degeneration. One of Roche's own cancer drugs, Avastin is often used off-label to treat AMD.

Italy slapped Novartis with €92 million in fines, and levied another €90.5 million worth of penalties against Roche. Developed by Roche's Genentech unit, Lucentis is marketed in Europe by Novartis.

At the time, both Swiss drugmakers said they would appeal the fines. "We strongly deny allegations about anticompetitive practices between Novartis and Roche in Italy," the companies said in a statement.

The companies denied the latest allegations as well. "Roche confirms there is no agreement between Roche and Novartis that restricts competition," the company told Reuters.

Though Lucentis is similar to Avastin, Genentech developed the eye drug specifically for ophthalmic use. But eye doctors have continued to use Avastin, which has to be repackaged into syringes for injection into the eye. As a vision treatment, it's much less expensive than Lucentis, at less than $100 per dose, compared with the eye drug's $2,000-per-dose list price.

But as Roche and Novartis have repeatedly warned, repackaging the cancer drug for eye use can cause contamination; several clusters of serious eye infections in the U.S. have been traced to repackaged Avastin. Lucentis brought in $1.9 billion for Roche last year.

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