Sep 19, 2018 08:42 AM

Merck Slashes Key Cancer Drug Price for China

The corporate headquarters of Merck & Company Inc. are seen in Kenilworth, New Jersey, on May 1. Photo: IC
The corporate headquarters of Merck & Company Inc. are seen in Kenilworth, New Jersey, on May 1. Photo: IC

U.S. pharmaceutical giant Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) will halve the price of one of its core cancer drugs for its China launch, following a move by rival Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS) to cut the price of the drug in half for the lucrative market. 

MSD’s Keytruda, a cutting edge treatment for melanoma, will be priced at 17,918 yuan ($2,613) for a 100 milligram/4 milliliter dose, the lowest price in the world, Caixin has learned. At that price, the drug costs half as much as it does in the U.S. and is 30% cheaper than it is in Hong Kong.

The company has also developed a patient financial assistance program for Keytruda, Caixin has learned. Patients who have no side effects from three months of paid treatment will get the next three months free.

Even though it set the price reduction plan, MSD hasn’t disclosed the market price for Keytruda in China. The company received a sales go-ahead from Chinese drug regulators in July.

MSD followed Bristol-Myers Squibb (BMS), which last month slashed price of its leading cancer drug Opidivo.

BMS said in August that Opidivo will cost 9,260 yuan ($1,352) for a 100 mg/10 ml dose, and 4,591 yuan for a 40 mg/4 ml dose in China, roughly half of the price in the U.S. This means that a monthly course of treatment for a 60-kilogram (132-pound) patient will cost 36,884 yuan a month. The cost for heavier patients will be higher.

Slashing prices is a common strategy for foreign drug makers entering a lower-income market. This round of price reductions is expected to make the cancer-drug costs of those pharmaceutical giants in China lower than in markets including Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong.

China is one of the world’s largest markets for cancer treatments. In 2016, sales of anti-cancer drugs in China reached 102 billion yuan ($14.9 billion), accounting for 18% of the global market, according to market research firm IMS.

Keytruda and Opidivo belong to a group of cutting-edge biologically based cancer drugs known as PD-1 inhibitors, shorthand for programmed cell death protein 1 inhibitor, which use a patient’s own immune system to destroy cancer cells.

Three other similar drugs developed by global pharmaceutical companies are Tecentriq from Swiss drug maker Roche AG, and AstraZeneca’s Imfinzi and Bavencio, co-developed by Mand Pfizer.

The cheaper pricing comes as the Chinese government pledged to reduce costs and Chinese drugmakers are lining up products for approval. Shanghai Junshi Biosciences Co. in August won regulatory clearance to sell a drug similar to Keytruda while more than 30 other domestic companies are awaiting reviews or are carrying out clinical tests for similar drugs.

On the global level last year, Opidivo sold more, while Keytruda had a higher growth rate. Opdivo’s sales rose 31% in 2017 to $4.95 billion, while Keytruda sold $3.81 billion, a jump of 172% from 2016, according to corporate filings of the two companies.

The neck-and-neck competition of the two drugs in the China market has only just started. Classified as a “second-tier treatment” by China’s drug regulator, Opidivo has a big patient base, while Keytruda, categorized as the first tier, will receive priority clinical use rights.

Earlier, the China Cancer Foundation rejected a BMS patient-assistance program under which patients who pay for five months of Opidivo would get the next six months of the injection for free. The reason of the rejection was unclear.

BMS’s buy-five-get-six-free program might not benefit patients much, as few patients for whom chemotherapy is ineffective are likely to both get good results from Opidivo and live for more than five months, a drug professional said.

A previous version of this story misstated the size of MSD’s price cut and incorrectly identified the company as Merck.

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