UPDATED: Merck discounts Remicade in U.K. as it tries to fend off biosimilars

Merck & Co. has seen its sales of the blockbuster Remicade beaten up in Europe as biosimilars makers have been much more aggressive about discounting their copies of the arthritis med than anyone expected. So the U.S. drugmaker is using a page from the competition's playbook and is cutting prices for the drug about 25% in the U.K.

Merck ($MRK) is offering about £48 million pounds ($74 million) in rebates and discounts to the U.K.'s National Health Service on £191 million sales of Remicade, Colin Wheeler, Merck's medical affairs director told Bloomberg. He said that compared with discounts of between 25% and 30% being offered by Napp Pharmaceuticals and Hospira, now part of Pfizer ($PFE), on the biosimilars of Remicade they offer. He said biosimilars currently hold only 5% of the market in the U.K.

But Napp spokesman said a statement that the level of discounts that competitors have bantered about its products are not correct. He said Napp has made available the biosimilar Remsima to the "NHS at discounts of 40% – 50% over the list price of Remicade, depending on the price agreed with each tendering region across the UK." He said the disounts rise to between 50% and 60% if, "money returned to the government through the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS)" is factored in. 

Merck's move to reduce the price of Remicade came after England's cost-effectiveness watchdog, the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), gave biosimilars an edge in the country with new guidance that incorporated the biosimilars and stipulates that the least expensive drug be used ahead of more costly options.

Merck reported that its sales of Remicade, which it licenses from Johnson & Johnson ($JNJ), were off about 25% in the second quarter. It attributed that revenue hit to heavy discounting of a biosimilar developed jointly by Hospira and South Korea's Celltrion but marketed separately by them as Inflectra and Remsima.

Merck execs have said discounts of the biosimilars in Europe have averaged about 45% to the price of Remicade. But reports out of Norway said that discounts reached nearly 70% from Finnish drug company Orion Oyj when it got into a pricing war with Hospira over public tender contracts there. Steinar Madsen, medical director at the Norwegian Medicines Agency, told Bloomberg at the time that doctors felt the price difference was too great to ignore and had been switching their patients from Remicade to the lower-cost biosimilars.

Several months later, Hospira reportedly won a large contract from France's Assistance Publique, Hôpitaux de Paris by offering what looked to be a 45% discount to the popular Remicade. The facility services about a fourth of the country's population.

The big question will be how quickly and how well biosimilars are adopted in the U.S., where they have no track record. Celltrion has submitted the duo's biosimilar for FDA review the big question is how it will be received in the U.S. where biosimilars are only now making a debut. Last month, Novartis ($NVS), through its Sandoz generics business, launched the first ever biosimilar in the U.S., its version of Amgen's ($AMGN) blockbuster Neupogen, marketed as Zarxio. Earlier this month it went to the FDA with an application for a homemade version of etanercept, an autoimmune treatment that brought in more than $4.5 billion for Amgen last year.

- here's the Bloomberg story

Related Articles:
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Celltrion revs up Remicade biosim for U.S. rollout this year
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Editor's note: The story was updated to include comments from Napp Phamaceuticals.