- Although Merck’s new cancer drug Keytruda has been approved in New Zealand for treatment of Melanoma, the country’s cost agency Pharmac has refused to fund coverage of the drug, reports Radio New Zealand.
- Pharmac argues Keytruda’s survival data for melanoma is insufficient to justify granting the drug a higher priority for funding.
- Merck has complained to Jonathan Coleman, the Health Minister of New Zealand, over the funding decision, citing clinical data presented at international conference. However, Coleman replied the data has not yet been subject to clinical review, according to documents released to Radio New Zealand.
Keytuda made headlines last year when former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, recovered from melanoma after treatment with Keytruda, in conjunction with standard-of-care treatment. Carter’s response to Keytruda represents the promising therapeutic potential of Keytruda, and other immuno-oncology drugs like it.
However, not all patients respond to Keytruda as well as Carter did. Initial data used for Keytruda’s U.S. approval showed the drug shrank tumors in only about 24% of patients, and that the effect lasted anywhere from 1.4 months to 8.5 months, notes Stat.
Since then, Merck (known as Merck, Sharp and Dohme in New Zealand) has presented new data showing 80% of melanoma patients who had no prior treatment saw tumor shrinkage, with a complete response in 14% of patients.
The company sent a letter to New Zealand Minister of Health Jonathan Coleman requesting this new data be taken into account. However, Coleman replied that as the data had not yet been peer-reviewed, Pharmac would continue to recommend funding for Keytruda receive a lower priority,
Patient groups, such as the Cancer Society of New Zealand, are pushing for Pharmac to cover the drug more fully.
And to complicate the situation further for Merck, Pharmac has proposed to fund Bristol Myers Squibb's Opdivo, a rival treatment to Keytruda. Pharmac cited “more certain survival data” and value achieved through commercial negotiations in its proposal to fund the drug.
Opdivo has outpaced Keytruda so far, racking up $704 million in first quarter sales, compared to only $249 million for Keytruda.