* Celltrion in vanguard of Korean push into biotech drugs
* Rituxan biosimilar on sale in UK, Germany, Netherlands
By Ben Hirschler
LONDON, May 15 The South Korean company behind
the first cut-price copy of Roche's blockbuster biotech
cancer drug Rituxan anticipates rapid sales growth in Europe as
healthcare providers embrace the cheaper medicine.
Celltrion is leading a pharmaceuticals drive by
South Korean firms, which aim to adapt the manufacturing skills
that made the country a force in microchips and smartphones to
the complex world of biotech drugs.
It already has a strong track record, after earlier winning
EU approval for the first antibody-based biotech drug, a copy of
Johnson & Johnson and Merck's rheumatoid
arthritis treatment Remicade.
Cut-price copies of that so-called biosimilar grabbed more
than a third of the market within a year of being launched in
big EU countries in the third quarter of 2015, and Celltrion's
strategy head thinks his Rituxan copy could do even better.
"It will be similar or even faster - that's our
expectation," Ho-Ung Kim said on Monday during a visit to
Celltrion won European approval in February for its
biosimilar version of Rituxan for leukaemia, lymphoma and
rheumatoid arthritis. It is currently sold in Britain, Germany
and the Netherlands, with more countries set to follow shortly.
A second Rituxan biosimilar, from Novartis, was
recommended for approval last month, which Kim said would add to
downward pressure on prices.
Many analysts have been surprised by the depth of discounts
offered on biosimilars, with copies of Remicade selling for 70
percent less than the original brand in Nordic countries and at
a discount of around 40 percent in other European markets.
Kim said deep discounts had been used to promote the
economic benefits of biosimilars, a strategy he argued was
paying off as both healthcare providers and medical experts
embraced them as safe and cost-effective.
Because biotech drugs are made inside living cells it is
impossible to make exact generic copies, which has led to
uncertainty over how quickly they will erode sales when patents
expire on expensive, branded biological drugs.
But the potential savings on multibillion-dollar sellers
like Roche's Rituxan and its breast cancer drug Herceptin, as
well as AbbVie's Humira for rheumatoid arthritis, make the
potential savings a big attraction for governments and insurers.
Prescription drug data tracker IMS estimated last year that
lower-cost biosimilars could save the United States and leading
European markets as much as $110 billion by 2020.
Samsung BioLogics, the South Korean
conglomerate's contract biotech drug manufacturing arm, is also
developing a range of biosimilars through its Samsung Bioepis
subsidiary, as the government in Seoul champions a sector it
sees as a major future exporter.
(Editing by Greg Mahlich)