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NHS could save ‘hundreds of millions a year’ after High Court slaps pharma companies down

Sam Tobin is at the High Court

THE NHS could save “hundreds of millions of pounds” a year after 12 clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) won a landmark legal fight to use an equally effective and significantly cheaper sight-saving drug.

Pharmaceutical giants Bayer and Novartis took the CCGs to the High Court after they decided to start treating wet age-related macular degeneration (AMD) — the leading cause of vision loss — with anti-cancer drug Avastin.

The companies — which market rival, licensed drugs Eylea and Lucentis — argued it was unlawful for the CCGs to use Avastin because it is not licensed for the treatment of wet AMD.

The CCGs said Avastin costs around £28 per injection, compared to £551 and £816 per injection for Lucentis and Eyelea respectively, meaning they would save around £13.5 million a year, enough to pay for “an extra 270 nurses or 266 heart transplants every year.”

They also pointed out that Avastin is used to treat wet AMD in Austria, France, Italy and Ireland, as well as in Britain both within the NHS and in private practice.

Mrs Justice Whipple upheld the lawfulness of the policy today, ruling that the CCGs were entitled to conclude the three drugs were of “equivalent effectiveness and safety” — and to “take cost into account” when making that decision.

David Hambleton, chief executive officer of South Tyneside CCG, said he was “absolutely delighted” with the ruling, adding: “This is great news for patients with this condition and for the wider NHS. It’s a victory for common sense over commercial interests.”

Mike Burdon, president of the Royal College of Ophthalmologists, told the BBC: “Licensing laws are designed to protect patients from poorly regulated unproven drugs, but it is the drug companies’ responsibility to apply for a licence.

“We are treating 40,000 new diagnoses of wet AMD annually – the saving could amount to £500 million a year. This amounts to one district hospital being built annually.”

Bayer and Novartis are both considering an appeal. A Bayer spokeswoman said the ruling “prioritises the cost of medication over doctors’ clinical judgement and expertise,” while a Novartis spokeswoman said it “threatens to jeopardise a world-leading system that has protected patients for many years by ensuring medicines have been tested rigorously.”

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