Roche CEO Slams U.K. Health System for Slowing Innovation

(Bloomberg) -- Roche Holding AG Chief Executive Officer Severin Schwan blasted a U.K. decision not to pay for one of the company’s blockbuster drugs to treat a rare form of multiple sclerosis, saying it would restrict innovation.

The ruling by the U.K.’s National Institute for Health and Care Excellence is part of an antiquated approach to drug evaluation that’s “appalling” and “deeply needs to be overhauled” if pharmaceutical companies are going to invest money in the country, Schwan said Thursday in an interview in London.

The CEO’s critique comes as the U.K. faces potential threats to drug supplies, research funding and access to trained personnel in light of Brexit. Policy makers and industry leaders are pushing for resources to make the cash-strapped sector faster and more productive. However, maintaining a stingy approach to drug reimbursement will cause big drugmakers to lose interest and reduce patients’ access to cutting-edge therapies, Schwan said.

Within Europe, Britain has the “reputation of being the most restrictive environment for innovative medicines because of pricing,” Schwan said. “Typically, it’s U.K. residents who get medicines latest.”

The drug price Roche agreed to with NHS England, which leads the country’s health-care system, wasn’t considered a cost-effective use of limited resources, NICE said in an email. The agency said it’s open to further discussions.

30,000-Pound Metric

The U.K. is 17th in per-person spending on health among members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, and one way it controls costs is through tough negotiations with drugmakers on prices. Once treatments are cleared by regulators, the NICE conducts an evaluation based on price and effectiveness, comparing them with other options.

The assessment places a value on every additional year of healthy life that a patient gets thanks to a treatment. That figure has hung around 30,000 pounds ($39,000) for years, despite inflation, and should probably be two to three times higher, Schwan said. He said he’s repeatedly raised the issue with British policy makers.

“I say, ‘Why is this the case? Why don’t you adjust this? Your own salary has been adjusted. I wonder what you would say if you had the salary of your grandparents?”’ he said. “And there is silence.”

Ocrevus Rejection

The ruling on Roche’s hot-selling multiple sclerosis drug, Ocrevus, is another case of U.K. officials failing to see the value of innovation, the CEO said. Officials approved payment in June for treatment of the most common form of MS, called relapsing-remitting. On Monday, they declined to back Ocrevus for treating primary-progressive MS, a rarer, more severe form of the disease.

NICE recognizes that there’s “a large unmet need” for treating people suffering from this rare form of multiple sclerosis and is open to further talks with Roche and NHS England, Meindert Boysen, director of the agency’s center for health technology evaluation, said in the emailed statement.

Ocrevus is more effective against the more common form of the disease, where it has lots of competition. But it’s the only drug that’s shown an ability to help patients with the rarer form of MS, which allowed it to gain accelerated approval in the U.S., Schwan said.

Using their standard approach, British officials determined that Ocrevus was priced too high to justify the lesser benefits seen in patients with the rarer form of the disease. Roche offered a lower price for that condition, Schwan said, but British officials told the company that their system doesn’t allow for different price levels for the same drug.

That’s the sort of experience that could discourage Roche from conducting more research-and-development work in the U.K., particularly as use of Ocrevus expands in other regions, he said.

“Do you think I will ever do research and development in multiple sclerosis in the U.K., in spite of the fact that some of the top scientists are sitting here?” he asked. “Forget it. I can’t even do a clinical trial and compare it to the standard of care.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.