MUMBAI (Reuters) - Swiss drugmaker Roche Holding AG plans to offer cut-price versions of two blockbuster cancer drugs for the Indian market soon, a company spokesman said on Friday, days after New Delhi moved to slash the price of a rival cancer treatment.
India stripped German's Bayer AG of its exclusive rights to Nexavar earlier this month and licensed a local drugs company to produce a cheap, generic version, on the grounds that poor Indians could not otherwise afford the life-saving drug.
Roche, the world's biggest maker of cancer drugs, said it would offer "significantly" cheaper, locally branded versions of its two cancer drugs, Herceptin and MabThera, by early next year, under an alliance with India's Emcure Pharmaceuticals Ltd.
"The scope is to enable access for a large majority of patients who currently pay out of pocket as well as to partner with the government to enable increased access to our products for people in need," spokesman Daniel Grotzky said by phone from company headquarters in Basel, Switzerland.
Monthly doses of Herceptin and MabThera cost around $3,000 to $4,500 per patient at wholesale prices, Grotzky said.
"With this strategy, we expect to significantly increase the number of patients treated with our therapies and help patients currently under treatment to continue to use our products properly," he added.
He would not be drawn on how much the local versions would cost, nor whether Roche was responding to the Bayer case.
The move highlights a growing debate about the cost of modern cancer medicines, which often work far better than traditional chemotherapy but come at a high price.
In other areas of medicines - notably HIV/AIDS drugs for Africa - drug companies have already cut prices substantially.
More recently, some firms, including GlaxoSmithKline, have also been experimenting with discounts on certain products in middle-income countries.
However, Roche has in the past argued that consumers everywhere should pay the same price for its cancer drugs.
The Wall Street Journal earlier on Friday quoted Roche's head of Middle East and Asian markets as saying the cheaper versions would be renamed for the Indian market and be packed by Emcure Pharmaceuticals in an effort to gain market share.
In the Bayer case, the Indian government for the first time issued a so-called compulsory license to local drugmaker Natco Pharma to make and sell a generic version of Bayer's Nexavar, a liver and kidney cancer drug, inside the country.
Under world trade rules, compulsory licenses are available to nations to issue in certain cases where life-saving treatments are unaffordable.
With around 40 percent of India's population living below the poverty line, healthcare is an upper-middle-class luxury.
Campaigners for cheaper access to drugs hailed the Bayer decision, which was taken after the country's patent office said Nexavar was not "reasonably affordably priced".
But the ruling reignited fears amongst global drugmakers like Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline and Novartis. They see huge potential in rapidly growing economies such as India but are wary of intellectual property protection.
Natco will retail Nexavar at 8,800 rupees ($172) for a monthly dose, a fraction of the 280,000 rupees ($5,469) Bayer's version cost.