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Do not expect single-payer healthcare system in US, say panelists

Despite the popularity of a single-payer system in some political circles, panelists at the FT US Healthcare & Life Sciences Summit in New York on May 10 doubt it will ever happen in the U.S.

"No matter what people say about it, they will blink when the time comes to vote for it," said Gail Wilensky, senior fellow at health policy group Project HOPE, and a former healthcare adviser to President George H.W. Bush.

The change, after all, would be dramatic, putting an industry representing 18% of the federal GDP under government control, said Wilensky, also a former administrator of the Health Care Financing Administration, now the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

Steven Corwin, president and CEO of New York-Presbyterian hospital agreed. "I don't see it happening, and I think it will be problematic [if it does]," he said.

However, Wilensky and Corwin said the nation could move toward a universal coverage in healthcare.

That goal "took a big step back," Corwin said, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 2012 that states could decide not to expand Medicaid coverage to more low-income people under the 2010 Affordable Care Act.

Mum on hemophilia treatment's cost

BioMarin Pharmaceutical Inc. Chairman and CEO Jean-Jacques Bienaimé would not say how much the gene therapy for hemophilia A the company is developing will cost.

But he said the treatment — a virus-attached infusion designed to be a one-time treatment to indefinitely raise factor VIII levels — will lower the cost of treating the clotting disorder. Hemophilia A is a genetic disease caused by the deficiency of clotting factor VIII.

"The cost of treating hemophilia is extremely high," he said. The costs run conservatively at $300,000 to $700,000 annually.

The experimental treatment, valoctocogene roxaparvovec, "is going to save the healthcare system some money compared to what they are spending today," he said.

Sanofi R&D chief looks forward to 'boredom'

As he prepares to step down July 1, after nine years as Sanofi's head of research and development, Elias Zerhouni has a plan for the next phase of his life — doing nothing.

"I miss being bored. I want to be bored for a while," he said at the conference.

Reflecting on his career at the Paris-based drug giant, Zerhouni said he transformed a company that had a "tradition of big pharma. The science wasn't there."

During an April 25 interview, Zerhouni said he was proud of bolstering the French company's molecular research to better understand the pathways of disease.

"To my understanding, there's no disease that can be treated by a single drug," he said. "There isn't a condition I know that's dependent on a single intervention."

During his tenure, he said the company expanded its "toolbox" through acquisitions of companies with a particular expertise. Sanofi's recent acquisitions include Belgian biotech Ablynx NV, where it gained a nanobody technology platform and 45 more experimental compounds in development — and an $11.6 billion deal to secure Bioverativ Inc.

U.S. lags in launching biosimilars

The U.S. is lagging Europe in launching biosimilars in the market, partly because of patent litigations over intellectual property rights, panelists said.

In Europe, "not a single biosimilar has been delayed by IP," said Julia Pike, Sandoz's North America vice president of IP. But in the U.S. virtually all biosimilars that have tried to go to market have faced IP disputes with the biologic with which they are considered to be substantially equivalent. A biologic is a medicine manufactured in a living system such as a microorganism, or plant or animal cells, such as a complex protein like an antibody.

Only three biosimilars have been approved in the U.S., compared to more than 40 in Europe, said Christine Simmon, executive director of the Biosimilars Council, an industry group.

Since the U.S. Food and Drug Administration's first biosimilar approval in January 2015, the regulator has approved eight additional biosimilars, but only three have been launched in the market — Zarxio, Inflectra and Renflexis, according to the Center for Biosimilars report.

Zarxio is Sandoz Inc.'s biosimilar of Amgen Inc.'s Neupogen; Inflectra and Renflexis are Pfizer Inc.'s and Samsung Bioepis Co. Ltd.'s biosimilars of Johnson & Johnson's Remicade, respectively. Neupogen is used to treat low white blood cells count, and Remicade treats Crohn's disease — a chronic inflammatory disease of the intestines.