Roche and Novartis investigated for an alleged cartel in Italy

On 6 February 2013 the Italian Competition Authority opened proceedings against the Roche Group and the Novartis Group in relation to an alleged anticompetitive agreement for excluding the ophthalmic use of Roche’s Avastin in order to advantage the sales in Italy of Lucentis, which was distributed by Novartis, in breach of Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union. The Authority visited the Italian premises of Roche and Novartis on 14 February 2013.

Both products are licensed by Genentech (Genentech and Novartis have jointly developed Lucentis for ophthalmic use), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Roche. (Novartis has a 33% stake in Roche).

The Authority notes that according to international scientific studies, Avastin and Lucentis are equivalent products for ophthalmic use, but Avastin is far less expensive than Lucentis, and yet only Lucentis prescriptions are reimbursed by the National Healthcare System. Against this background, it appears that Roche markets Avastin for anti-cancer treatments only, and therefore only a few doctors prescribe Avastin as an ophthalmologic drug for “off-label” use.

According to the Authority, Roche’s decision not to market Avastin for ophthalmic use is due to the fact that Roche would gain higher royalties from the distribution of Lucentis, instead of selling its own Avastin. Moreover, Novartis’s 33% stake in Roche may also have kept Roche from entering the market.

According to the Authority, the National Healthcare System has suffered damages of some Euro 400 million as a result. The provisional deadline to close the investigation is 20 December 2013. [Gabriele Accardo]