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PARIS (Reuters) - The French government, looking to cut healthcare costs, plans to authorize the use of Roche cancer drug Avastin as an alternative eye disease treatment to the much pricier Lucentis, marketed by both Roche and Novartis.
The government said on Monday it had introduced an amendment to its social security budget bill that would allow doctors to use Avastin as a treatment for age-related macular degeneration (AMD)- a leading cause of blindness among the elderly.
The initiator of the measure, Socialist lawmaker Gerard Bapt, argues that encouraging the use of the drug, which costs 30 times less than Lucentis, could bring the state annual savings of at least 200 million euros ($273 million).
French lawmakers are due to vote on the social security budget next week.
Novartis said it "strongly rejects" the health ministry's plans which it said put patients at risk since Avastin is not safely formulated to be injected in the eye.
"We do not see how reimbursing off-label use for cost reasons in France is justified in the interest of public health, where there are licensed alternatives," the drugmaker said in an emailed statement.
Roche said in a statement financial considerations by national healthcare bodies should not compromise patient safety and EU law.
Although Roche's Avastin is not approved by health regulators as a treatment for AMD, it works in a similar way to Lucentis and costs around 30 euros a dose in France versus the 900 euros charged for an injection of Lucentis.
Both Swiss drugmakers have in recent months faced regulatory scrutiny in France and Italy on suspicion of anti-competitive practices. The two companies have always discouraged substituting Avastin for Lucentis, saying the two drugs were developed for different therapeutic purposes.
Lucentis is marketed by Novartis outside the United States and is the company's third-biggest seller with sales of $2.38 billion last year. Sales of Lucentis for Roche, which markets the treatment in the United States, were 1.9 billion.
($1 = 0.7331 Euros)
Reporting by Natalie Huet; Additional reporting by Katharina Bart and Caroline Copley in Zurich.; editing by Tom Pfeiffer and David Evans