Rising biosimilar uptake touted amid ‘continuously evolving’ evidence for safety, efficacy

Canada could save an estimated $280 million a year in drug costs if biosimilar uptake here reached the levels seen in Norway, a speaker told attendees at a recent event in Calgary.

“One problem with biosimilars is their uptake,” Andrea Staruch, a pharmacy services consultant at Green Shield Canada, said during a presentation at Benefits Canada‘s Calgary Benefits Summit on May 29.

Staruch noted that at 67.8 per cent, biosimilar uptake in Norway far exceeds the 2.5 per cent figure for the Canadian market. One of the barriers to greater uptake in Canada, according to Staruch, has been the response of rheumatologists. “They have a certain comfort with the patient assistance programs . . . and they have no incentive to change,” she said.

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“There’s a reasons these drugs aren’t coming to Canada as quickly,” she added, referring to the greater availability of biosimilar drugs in Europe. “It’s because they don’t see a lucrative market.”

In Staruch’s view, one option to change that is to encourage patients currently on biologic drugs to switch to biosimilars. Health Canada, according to Staruch, supports well-controlled transitions for approved indications. She also referred to the existence of about 75 studies on non-medical switching of patients with inflammatory arthritis and diseases of the gastrointestinal tract and skin. “The evidence has been continuously evolving,” she said.

In particular, Staruch spoke of a study from Norway that she said was the first randomized trial to assess the safety and efficacy in patients who switch to a biosimilar drug from a biologic. It involved 481 patients who either continued on their biologic treatment or switched to a biosimilar drug. The results, according to Staruch, were similar for both groups in regards to safety, efficacy and immunogenicity and showed no risk in switching to a biosimilar drug.

Staruch, then, believes it’s time to encourage switching to biosimilar drugs through a program that gives patients the option of either making the transition or staying on a biologic but at a lower level of reimbursement. While biosimilar drugs don’t offer the same level of cost savings as generics, she showed a table showing prices differences ranging from 17 per cent to 47 per cent. “It’s not going to be as dramatic as your brand to generic,” said Staruch, noting the savings in terms of dollar amounts are still significant given the high cost of the drugs.

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Asked during her session whether the approach she touted might stifle the development of new drugs in Canada, Staruch suggested the opposite could happen. The cost savings from embracing biosimilars, she said, could open up space for spending on biologic drugs.