The highest-selling medications in Switzerland are biotechnological drugs, known as biologics. Millions of francs could be saved if generics – biosimilars – were used instead.
Drugs produced using biotechnological methods are described as biologics. Compared with classic chemical medications, they have a very complex structure and high molecular weight. Biologics are produced from or using biological organisms, and are made up of proteins, sugars, and nucleic acids, either alone or in combination. Biologics have revolutionised the treatment of a number of illnesses, and contributed significantly to progress with treatment strategies for serious and even life-threatening conditions such as cancer, rheumatoid arthritis, diabetes and blood disorders. Considerable cost-saving potential is to be found in those compounds which imitate these biologics, known as biosimilars. A biosimilar is defined as a biotechnologically produced medication which contains a version of the active ingredient found in a biologic that has already been approved for sale (the reference drug). Biosimilars can thus be described as the generic versions of biologics.
The use of a biosimilar instead of the original medication helps to keep the costs of healthcare down and thus counter the annual increase in health insurance premiums, without jeopardising the quality and safety of treatment. A lack of legal regulation and financial incentives (such as those which generally apply to generics), as well as hesitation in the medical community owing to safety concerns, meant that biosimilars were unable to gain a firm enough toehold on the market in 2016. The market for biologics is likely to expand significantly in the future, and it is perhaps only a matter of time until expenditure on them exceeds two or even three billion Swiss francs a year. If a lack of price regulation and legal provisions prevent biosimilars being developed, there will be no financial consequences for pharmaceutical companies when the patents for biologics expire.