The Italian government fined drug industry giants Novartis and Roche $251 million dollars for their roles in a collusion plot to prevent Roche’s Avastin cancer drug from being used as a treatment for a disease affecting aging eyes. The country’s antitrust regulation body fined the two companies. Both companies have been accused of stopping distribution of Avastin so that another drug, Lucentis, would be distributed and used for treatment of wet aged-related macular degeneration.
The two companies pushed Lucentis, which is more expensive than Avastin. Lucentis is marketed jointly by both companies. A study completed in 2010 found that there is no difference between the two drugs for treating the eye disease. The companies will split the fine evenly, with Novartis paying 92 million euros and Roche paying 90.5 million euros.
Novartis and Roche have said that they plan to appeal the ruling, and have stated that they do not have an agreement to restrict competition. “Patient safety and risks arising from unlicensed use of medicines are a critical issue,” Novartis stated in a statement released on the ruling. “The ruling openly encourages and promotes the widespread unlicensed intra-vitreal use of Avastin.”
The Italian government has fought rising health costs over the past few years. The European Consumer Organisation, an advocacy group which has worked with governments in the past, has called Novartis and Roche unethical. “The unethical tactics of Roche and Novartis to block the cheaper alternative at the expense of consumers are unacceptable,” said the group. The group has asked the European Commission to investigate similar actions from drug companies across the EU.