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Italy Seeks $1.6 Billion Over Roche, Novartis Eye Drugs

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May 29 (Bloomberg) -- Italy is seeking 1.2 billion euros ($1.6 billion) in damages from Roche Holding AG and Novartis AG over allegations the two drugmakers colluded to direct patients with an eye disorder to a more expensive medicine.

Roche and Novartis agreed to restrict competition in eye-drug sales, the Italian Health Ministry said in a statement last night, citing a February decision by the national antitrust regulator. That resulted in damages to the Italian health system of 45 million euros in 2012, 540 million euros last year and 615 million euros this year, the ministry said.

Roche and Novartis both sell Lucentis, a medicine for an eye disorder called wet age-related macular degeneration, dividing up the global market between them. Roche also sells a cheaper drug called Avastin, which some studies have found is just as effective as Lucentis, though it’s sold in larger quantities required to treat tumors and has to be repackaged for use in the eye. Italy’s antitrust regulator fined the two companies 182.5 million euros for blocking sales of Avastin in favor of the pricier drug.

The companies had a “horizontal agreement to restrict competition,” the Italian ministry said, quoting the antitrust ruling.

The companies, both based in Basel, Switzerland, dispute the allegations. The claims have “no basis,” Roche spokeswoman Claudia Schmitt said in an e-mail last night, adding that Roche hadn’t been contacted in the matter.

EU Probe

Novartis “strongly” denies engaging in such practices with Roche in Italy, Novartis said in a statement e-mailed by spokesman Eric Althoff.

European Union antitrust regulators said this month they are also looking at whether the two Swiss companies colluded to steer eye patients and doctors away from Avastin, though they haven’t opened a formal probe. France is also investigating.

Avastin is only approved for cancer, but it belongs to the same family of medicines as Lucentis, one called anti-VEGF that prevents blood-vessel growth. For that reason, and because Lucentis costs more, some doctors in the U.S. and Europe use Avastin instead.

To contact the reporters on this story: Naomi Kresge in Berlin at nkresge@bloomberg.net; Andrew Frye in Rome at afrye@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Kristen Hallam at khallam@bloomberg.net; Phil Serafino at pserafino@bloomberg.net

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