At first glance, it appears that the US market for biosimilars is ready for takeoff.
We believe that these expectations are overly optimistic. While the US market holds great promise for biosimilars, five challenges will hinder its growth in the near term:
The bottom line: the US biosimilars market may not reach critical mass until the mid-2020s. Companies that are developing products based on biologics whose exclusivity will expire before 2020 must therefore develop a plan that does not rely on significant near-term returns. And for those that have fallen behind or have yet to begin developing biosimilars, the market’s likely slow growth creates an opening for products based on biologics whose exclusivity will not expire until 2020 and beyond.
It is not an overstatement to say that the success of biosimilars globally will largely depend on the US market, which accounts for about half the world’s sales of brand-name biologic products.
The US market has lagged markets in Europe, where biosimilar products have been available since 2006. But the landscape changed with the passage of the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act (BPCIA) in 2009. That law established the basic ground rules for developing biosimilars in the US and tasked the FDA with developing comprehensive regulations to govern the market.
There’s little doubt that biosimilars will ultimately gain traction in the US. Multiple companies, both traditional generics players and originators, are developing biosimilar versions of blockbusters whose exclusivity will expire by 2020, including Lantus, Rituxan, Herceptin, Remicade, Enbrel, Neulasta, Avastin, and Humira.
So the real question is, How quickly will the market shift toward biosimilars? Consider the generics market for small-molecule drugs. It took about 15 years from the passage of the 1984 Hatch-Waxman Act, which established the generics market, for these products to grab about 50 percent of the market, as measured by volume of prescriptions. And the development of the biosimilars market outside the US has likewise been slow: the $2.5 billion in global sales of biosimilars in 2012 accounted for less than 3 percent of the sales of products with expired exclusivity.
Some of the issues that have slowed uptake in Europe—along with some factors that are unique to the US—will have a similar impact on the growth of the US biosimilars market.
Regulatory Uncertainty. The task of establishing a regulatory framework for biosimilars is complicated by the nature of biologic drugs. While the chemical structure of generic small-molecule drugs is identical to that of the original product (the “reference listed drug”), biologics are more complex and are very sensitive to changes in the manufacturing process. As a result, biosimilars are never identical to the original version.
The FDA must develop rules and guidelines for biosimilars that take the differences into account. Moreover, the rules implementing the BPCIA are far from complete, which is creating uncertainty for companies and the possibility of longer-than-expected approval times and higer-than-expected development costs. Issues yet to be resolved include whether companies can sell a biosimilar under the same name as the reference version, and whether biosimilars will require any special packaging to differentiate them from the original.
Perhaps the biggest unknown is how the FDA will make decisions about interchangeability. There are two designations under the BPCIA: biosimilar and interchangeable. A biosimilar product is “highly similar” to an existing biologic. For a biosimilar to be deemed interchangeable, the manufacturer must prove that there is no increased risk of side effects or reduced efficacy in patients switched to it from the original version. The advantage of the interchangeable designation is twofold. First, it gives manufacturers one year of market exclusivity for the biosimilar. Second, it increases the odds that payers will institute “mandatory substitution” for the product, allowing pharmacists to substitute it for the reference biologic in states where this practice is permitted.
The requirements for proving interchangeability have not yet been spelled out. But even when the rules are clarified, whether or not to go after the interchangeable designation will present companies with a tough decision. It is likely that the trials required to demonstrate interchangeability will be more complicated and expensive than those involved in demonstrating biosimilarity. More important, if a company’s initial FDA application seeks interchangeability and is rejected, the product’s launch will at a minimum be delayed, in some cases making the product commercially unviable.
Cautious Policy Makers and Payers. The push from policy makers and payers for widespread adoption of biosimilars will be a critical factor in the market’s development. One of the most powerful tools is mandatory substitution, which has led to the widespread use of generic small-molecule drugs in the US and Europe. But we believe that mandatory substitution policies in the US—as in Europe—will not be the norm for biosimilars anytime soon. (See the sidebar,”An Uphill Battle in Europe.”)
Companies in the biosimilars game must develop strategies that take into account the likelihood that the US market will not experience explosive growth anytime soon. The approach will differ depending on whether the company is a developer of biosimilars competing in the near term, a developer of biosimilars that has fallen behind other players or a manufacturer that has yet to enter the space, or an originator of biologics.
Near-Term Competitors. Players that are developing products based on biologics whose exclusivity will expire before 2020 should focus on three areas over the next five to seven years.
First, they must take steps to carefully manage profitability. A key challenge will be the significant investments required to continue developing biosimilars before the market has reached critical mass. As a result, companies will need to make tricky trade-offs between near-term and long-term profitability.
Consider pricing decisions. It is expected that makers of the first biosimilars marketed in the US will offer discounts of about 20 to 30 percent compared with the reference product. But pricing strategies for individual channels will be complex. Recently issued guidance from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services provides a framework for setting reimbursements for biosimilar products. In order to maximize returns, manufacturers of biosimilars will have to not only strategically set the wholesale acquisition cost but also smartly manage the relative discounts offered in the channels where their products are most likely to be adopted. This will require an in-depth understanding of the economics of each channel, the degree to which biosimilars will be adopted in each one, and the economic impact that buy-and-bill practices have on physician finances. And all this must be done in a dynamic context in which the manufacturer of the reference drug is likely adjusting discounts to close the price gap with biosimilars and preserve the economics for prescribing physicians.
Second, near-term competitors must take steps to shape the evolving market for biosimilars. This presents a valuable opportunity, but it comes with costs, such as those associated with educating payers, policy makers, and physicians about the benefits of biosimilars. Early entrants will also have to decide whether to advocate for the broad adoption of biosimilars, which will help all future makers of biosimilars, or to push for standards that set a higher bar for approval and adoption, thereby limiting competition with their own products. Depending on which path they choose, manufacturers can explore noncompetitive cross-company partnerships, both industry-wide (through established organizations such as the Generic Pharmaceutical Association) or with a limited group of other early entrants. Similar efforts in the pharmaceutical industry that have focused on improving patient safety and accelerating development could serve as a model.
Finally, companies must sustain the advantage of being early to market and create further barriers to entry for latecomers. This will include building capabilities in scale-up, trial design, pricing, and access. They will also need to create service offerings that strengthen relationships with patients and providers—measures that will be difficult for rivals to copy.
Late Entrants. Companies that have yet to enter the US biosimilars market or that are lagging face real hurdles. But that does not mean latecomers are entirely locked out. Most of the focus to date has been on products whose exclusivity will expire before 2020, but the market is wide open for products that will come after that. Further, there are still opportunities to establish a foothold through acquisitions and partnerships. However, the list of viable targets is short and the price tag on such deals will likely be hefty.
Companies that want to zero in on the potential for biosimilars in 2020 and beyond will have to make several decisions and choices starting now:
Originators. Originator companies also have some critical choices to make. The most fundamental is whether to lead or slow the development of biosimilars. The first option means accepting biosimilars as a reality and leveraging the company’s reputation and capabilities to shape the market—which will put it in a position to benefit over the long run from the overall expansion of the market for biologics. The second option is to try to limit the biosimilars market. Companies taking this tack will focus on patient safety and the potential unknowns surrounding biosimilars, but they risk criticism for blocking attempts to rein in runaway health care costs.
There is little doubt that biosimilars will ultimately gain broad acceptance and that the market for biosimilars in the US will be large. What is in doubt is the time it will take for that market to develop. BCG’s analysis indicates that there are significant barriers to rapid near-term growth. Both biosimilars developers and biologics innovators must craft strategies that will enable them to thrive in light of that reality.
Even in the EU, where biosimilars have been on the market for eight years and the pressure from payers to reduce drug costs is far more intense than in the US, mandatory substitution with biosimilars has gained limited traction. Only France and Norway have actively promoted substitution. The law passed in France applies only to patients who are starting a biologic for the first time in a hospital setting—not to those already being treated with a reference biologic. Meanwhile, the Norwegian government’s initial effort to promote the policy was successfully challenged in court by the originator, which argued that the biosimilar was not “generically equivalent” to the reference product. These are all signs that the mandatory substitution policies that have benefited small-molecule generics will be a long time coming in the biosimilars market.