Mumbai: Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding plans to offer cut-price versions of two blockbuster cancer drugs for the Indian market soon, a company spokesman said on Friday, days after the government moved to slash the price of another cancer treatment.
India stripped German group Bayer of exclusive rights to Nexavar earlier this month and licenced a local company to produce a cheap, generic version, on the grounds that poor Indians could not otherwise afford the life-saving drug.
Roche, the world's biggest maker of cancer drugs, said it would offer "significantly" cheaper, locally branded versions of its two cancer drugs, Herceptin and MabThera, by early next year, under an alliance with India's Emcure Pharmaceuticals.
"The scope is to enable access for a large majority of patients who currently pay out of pocket as well as to partner with the government to enable increased access to our products for people in need," spokesman Daniel Grotzky said by phone from company headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.
Monthly doses of Herceptin, for breast cancer, and MabThera, for cancers of the blood and lymph system, cost around $3,000 to $4,500 per patient at wholesale prices, Grotzky said.
"With this strategy, we expect to significantly increase the number of patients treated with our therapies and help patients currently under treatment to continue to use our products properly," he added.
He would not be drawn on how much the local versions would cost, nor whether Roche was responding to the Bayer case.
The move highlights a growing debate about the cost of modern cancer medicines, which often work far better than traditional chemotherapy but come at a much high price.
In other areas of medicines - notably HIV/AIDS drugs for Africa - drug companies have already cut prices substantially. More recently, some firms, including GlaxoSmithKline, have also been experimenting with discounts on certain products in middle-income countries.
However, Roche has in the past argued that consumers everywhere should pay the same price for its cancer drugs.
New drug names
The Swiss company said the cheaper versions would be renamed for the Indian market and be packed by Emcure Pharmaceuticals in an effort to gain market share, confirming an earlier report in the Wall Street Journal.
The decision to give the cheaper versions distinct names for the Indian market may help Roche limit the risk that wholesalers buy up the products and try and re-sell them in premium-priced markets such as the United States and Europe.
The trading of pharmaceuticals by middlemen, often via Internet pharmacies, is a growing headache for drug companies and can conceal counterfeits - as happened recently when fake copies of Avastin, another Roche drug, where shipped from the Middle East through Europe to California.
Under the deal with Emcure, Roche will continue to make the cancer medicines at its plants in the United States, Singapore and Germany and ship vials of the drugs to Emcure for packaging. Grotzky added that the alliance was triggered in part by India's desire to see global pharmaceutical companies sign partnerships with Indian companies.
In the Bayer case, the Indian government for the first time issued a so-called compulsory licence to local drugmaker Natco Pharma to make and sell a generic version of Bayer's Nexavar, a liver and kidney cancer drug, inside the country.
Under world trade rules, compulsory licences are available to nations to issue in certain cases where life-saving treatments are unaffordable.
With around 40 per cent of India's population living below the poverty line, healthcare is an upper-middle-class luxury.
Campaigners for cheaper access to drugs hailed the Bayer decision, which was taken after the country's patent office said Nexavar was not "reasonably affordably priced".
But the ruling reignited fears amongst global drugmakers like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. They see huge potential in rapidly growing economies such as India but are wary of intellectual property protection.
Natco will retail Nexavar at 8,800 rupees for a monthly dose, a fraction of the 280,000 rupees Bayer's version costs.