Roche and Novartis unable to kill €180M fine in Avastin vs. Lucentis case

Earlier this year, Italian antitrust watchdogs cracked down on Roche ($RHHBY) and Novartis ($NVS) for questionable marketing of Lucentis, their drug for wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD). The Italian Competition Authority accused the Swiss drugmakers of pushing patients toward Lucentis rather than Avastin, their cheaper, off-label product that can treat the same vision problems.

Now, an Italian regional court is upholding charges levied against the companies earlier this year, fining Roche and Novartis €180 million ($221.6 million) for manipulating sales of their eye medication.

The Lazio regional administrative court dismissed appeals from the two companies, which were accused of colluding to hamper use of Avastin to reap the profits off Lucentis, Italian newspaper ANSA reports. The companies' alleged cartel is estimated to have cost Italy's national health service over €45 million ($55 million) in 2012 and could have racked up future costs of €600 million a year, the newspaper notes. In March, the Italian Competition Authority imposed penalties of €92 million ($113 million) on Novartis and €90.5 million ($111.4 million) on Roche for their marketing practices.

"The unethical tactics of Roche and Novartis to block the cheaper alternative at the expense of consumers are unacceptable," Monique Goyens, director of the European Consumers' Organisation, told Bloomberg at the time of the original ruling.

The news does not bode well for Roche and marketing partner Novartis, as the companies continue to face pushback for their marketing practices of Avastin and Lucentis. In mid-March, French authorities jumped into the fray, announcing that they had been investigating the Lucentis-Avastin controversy since 2012. In April, the French Competition Authority raided Roche and Novartis' local offices to gather evidence of collusion.

In July, European Union regulators announced that the EU antitrust authority would also gather information as to whether Roche and Novartis conspired to prevent the use of Avastin over Lucentis.

The court order comes on the heels of study data showing that Avastin is just as safe as Lucentis for treating AMD. A review published in September's issue of The Cochrane Library journal compared the two drugs in 9 trials involving 3,665 patients and found that Avastin does not increase the risk of death or serious side effects when put head-to-head with Lucentis.

For now, though, some countries including France and Italy are choosing to pay for patients to be treated with Avastin with cost-saving benefits in mind. In June, the Italian government said it would cover Avastin as a treatment for AMD rather than Lucentis to cut costs, and in July France named Avastin as a substitute for its pricier counterpart.

- read the ANSA story

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