25 February 2020
Biosimilar drugs can bring down costs and offer wider choices in treatment of patients. Photo:
Biosimilar drugs can bring down costs and offer wider choices in treatment of patients. Photo:

Hospital Authority urged to focus on biosimilar medicines

Hong Kong public hospitals can save HK$230 million (US$29.7 million) a year if authorities introduce cheaper biosimilar medicines, according to a local pharmacists’ association.

The city introduced last year its first biosimilar agent “Filgrastim”, which is used to treat patients having very low level of neutrophils, a type of white blood cells that are the body’s primary defense against infection. The medication costs just one-third of the price of the original.

Biosimilar drugs are follow-on versions of original biological medicines. They are independently developed after a patent protecting the original product has expired, and are much cheaper than the branded versions.

Pharmacists have urged the health department to set up relevant system for registrations of biosimilar agents, also known as follow-on biologics, to enhance the process of introducing the new medicines, the Hong Kong Economic Journal reported.

Over 10 biosimilar agents can be brought into the market in the next eight years as the existing patents will expire by 2022, the paper cited William Chui Chun-ming, president of the Hong Kong Society of Hospital Pharmacists, as saying. 

Biological agents have been increasingly used for treatment of cancer and rheumatology diseases in recent years.

Unlike ordinary chemical synthetic drugs, biologics contain biological components, such as proteins, cells, blood and antibodies that involve higher costs and thus higher selling prices, given stricter and more complex development and production process as compared to general drugs.

However, after the expiry of the patent biologics, pharmaceutical companies have to disclose the drug formula for other pharmaceutical production of the biosimilar agents. That will help firms produce copycat versions which could be 30 percent cheaper.

The HK$230 million that could be saved each year from the introduction of biosimilar medicines can be used for other medical purposes, or to subsidize poor patients, Chui said.

A spokesman for the Department of Health declined to indicate whether the agency is undertaking any preparations for the proposed registration system. He noted that there are only 10 biosimilar agents registered, and that each takes about five months for reviews and approvals.

A spokesman with the Hospital Authority, meanwhile, said the authority has an evaluation system for biosimilar agents. Patients who were assessed for clinical treatment with specialist needs could be prescribed biosimilar agents, he said.

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Freelance journalist