First Biosimilar Launched - So Where Are The Savings?

If you follow health news the way American Council on Science and Health does, you have been treated to grandiose claims that Novartis has ushered in "a new era in U.S. medicine" with the launch of the first biosimilar, a copy of a drug approved in the United States called Neupogen, which is a white blood cell booster for chemotherapy patients that was invented by Amgen.

Both drugs are biologicals - drugs derived from living organisms - but a biosimilar is different than a generic version of a drug in that it is not chemically identical. Because it is not identical, it can be sold around the original patent in a way a generic can't, sort of like deciding you want to sell a Betty Crocker cake and not have to pay them.

Novartis did no original discovery work and spent very little money compared to Amgen, so why aren't the savings being passed along to customers? This biosimilar is only being sold at a 15 percent discount, yet the company is claiming a "high-quality, more affordable version."

For obvious reasons - copycat products are at least philosophically a violation of their revenue stream - Amgen even tried to block Zarxio, also known as filgrastim-sndz, but a court struck them down.

The big question for health-conscious readers is, is similar good enough? We have no idea. Zarxio is $275.66 for a 300 microgram syringe, compared to $324.30 for Neupogen. They may be functionally identical, but even two batches of the same recipe by the same company will be a little different, since these are biologicals and not a pure drug like aspirin. Obviously different recipes from different companies could be much different.

For such small savings, who will take the risk? Probably the U.S. government, but only on insurance plans for poor people.