SINGAPORE (Oct 22): Recently, Sandoz, the generics division of Novartis, settled a patent lawsuit with AbbVie over Humira, a so-called biologic drug that treats rheumatoid arthritis and just so happens to be the biggest money-maker in all of pharma. With 2017 sales of US$18.4 billion ($25.3 billion), Humira accounts for an astonishing 65% of AbbVie’s revenue.

The settlement will enable Sandoz to bring a generic version — called a biosimilar — to the US market at the beginning of 2023, while paying AbbVie a royalty. This mirrored similar settlements with Mylan, Amgen and Samsung Bioepis Co that will allow all of them to sell generic Humira at staggered dates in 2023. (A fifth company, Boehringer Ingelheim, is continuing to litigate over the Humira patents.)

On the one hand, I suppose that US patients and insurance companies should be grateful that relief from Humira’s exorbitant US$60,000 annual cost is just five years away. After all, although the original patent for the drug expired in 2016, the company has more recent patents on the drug — over 100, in fact — some of which are good until 2034. On the other hand, a look across the Atlantic Ocean should make US insurers stew with frustration. Why? Because Amgen and Novartis will begin selling their biosimilars in Europe the week of Oct 15. Even before the advent of generic Humira, the cost of the drug was much lower than in the US, ranging between US$10,000 and US$25,000 a year. The biosimilars are expected to cut that price by between 10% and 25%, according to The Wall Street Journal. The UK’s National Health System is expected to save about US$200 million a year by 2021, says WSJ.

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