Novartis Pill For Multiple Sclerosis Wins Approval, But At What Cost?

Nov 26, 2012
Originally published on September 22, 2010 2:04 pm

If you haven't heard by now, Swiss drugmaker Novartis just got Food and Drug Administration approval to sell the first pill that can slow the progression of multiple sclerosis.

The Novartis medicine, called Gilenya, will go head-to-head with injectable medicines, including Avonex, Tysabri and Rebif. But how much will the MS pill cost?

Novartis won't say.

A company spokeswoman tells NPR the drug will be available in the U.S. starting Oct. 4. The price tag, she says, will be based on "the value it delivers to patients, the scientific innovation it represents, and the investment Novartis has made in studies."

Sounds expensive. So we asked health care analyst Dr. Mark Schoenebaum, with the firm International Strategy and Investment in New York, what he figures the medicine will cost. "I'm confident that it's going to be at least $30,000 per patient," he says.

All the injected drugs cost around $35,000 a year, Schoenebaum explains, and there's no reason to think Novartis will charge much less than that.

Bloomberg talked with an analyst at a Swiss brokerage who also put the Gilenya price at about $30,000.

Of course, how much patients will have to pay out of their own pockets will depend on their insurance coverage.

Like the currently available injected drugs, Gilenya has some side-effects baggage. The Food and Drug Administration says doctors should monitor patients on Gilenya for a slowdown in heart rate. The drug can cause liver problems and make people more vulnerable to serious infections. And some cases of serious swelling behind the retinas of people taking the drug have been reported.

Still, Schoenebaum says, the warnings on Gilenya aren't as severe as expected. And doctors won't be required to file lots of safety paperwork with the FDA either. So, he figures, Gilenya could gain 20 percent, or so, of the MS drug market, about double what he was figuring before the approval.

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