Italian anti-trust regulator yesterday slapped a total of €180 million ($250 million) fine on Swiss pharmaceutical giants, Novartis and Roche Holdings, for cartellising the sales of two major eye treatment drugs.
The Italian Competition Authority, said that both drug companies colluded to exclude the cheap drug Avastin, used in the treatment of the most common eyesight condition in the elderly as well as other serious sight problems, and pushed demand towards the much more expensive drug Lucentis, by creating an artificial distinction between the two drugs, mainly through overstating the dangers of Avastin use.
The regulator said that this collusion caused the Italian National Health Service to lose over €45 million in 2012, while future costs might exceed €600 million per year.
Novartis and Roche were imposed fines €92 and €90.5 million respectively.
The regulator launched an investigation in February 2013 based on the complaints filed by Aiudapds - an association of private hospitals, and the Italian Ophthalmologic Association.
The probe revealed that since 2011 Roche and Novartis colluded to create an artificial product differentiation and purportedly portrayed Avastin as more dangerous than Lucentis, in order to influence prescriptions of doctors and health services.
Avastin, an anti-cancer drug developed by Genentech, a subsidiary of Roche, is approved in the treatment of some forms of cancer, but since mid-2000, it has been used as an off-label drug to also treat common eyesight conditions.
Lucentis contains an active substance similar to Avastin, but it has been submitted for regulatory approval by Genentech in the US and Novartis everywhere else specifically for the eyesight conditions previously treated through Avastin.
Lucentis in Italy costs €900 - down from an earlier price of €1,700, while the price of an off-label injection of Avastin is €81.
''The economic rationale of firms' conduct stems from the relationship between the Roche and Novartis groups: while Roche collects significant royalties from the sales of Lucentis, which has been developed by its subsidiary Genentech, Novartis benefits directly from Lucentis' sales and holds a 30 per cent share in Roche, said the Italian Competition Authority in a statement.