Bluebird Bio’s exiting the European market signals problems for cell and gene therapy market access

Lyfegen Editorial Team


For cell and gene therapy companies to (re)enter the European market, value-based contracting will be imperative


Bluebird Bio – a biotechnology company that develops gene therapies for severe genetic disorders and cancer - has exited the European market. Evidently, this is because the company couldn’t strike deals with payers for its EMA-approved gene therapies, Zynteglo (betibeglogene autotemcel) and Skysona (elivaldogene autotemcel). Payer reluctance to reimburse cell and gene therapies should send shock waves throughout the cell and gene therapy industry. Partnering with Lyfegen may be the solution for pharma and payers alike, as its platform can put users on the right track towards successful implementation of value-based arrangements.

The high price tag of cell and gene therapies has been a topic of discussion for several years and remains an unresolved challenge. Practically all approved cell and gene therapies are priced at more than $350,000 per dose. Zolgensma (onasemnogene abeparvovec-xioi) is currently the most expensive therapy ever launched, with a $2.1 million price tag.

Ideally, gene therapies address the root causes of disease with a single curative dose. If they can replace a lifetime of expensive maintenance treatments this may lead to cost savings in the long run. Yet, the high upfront costs and uncertainty surrounding long-term efficacy and adverse events have caused payer push-back.

Payer concerns are further exacerbated due to there being hundreds of cell and gene therapies in the pipeline, across a wide range of therapeutic categories, from sickle cell anemia to HIV. Should many of these therapies be approved in the coming decade the budgetary impact on payers could become overwhelming.

Payers are trying to find alternative reimbursement approaches. Examples of innovative reimbursement models include installment plans, which spread out payments, analogous to a mortgage; and value-based payments. Here, the manufacturer is paid the total cost of the therapy upfront, or in installments. Then, if the patient experiences disease progression, manufacturers must provide a partial or full refund.

One publicly known example of such an arrangement involves the gene therapy Luxturna (voretigene neparvovec). This treatment holds the promise to restore “functional vision” to certain patients with inherited blindness. After the product was approved by the FDA in 2017, the sponsor, Spark Therapeutics, set the price at $425,000 per eye. The insurer Harvard Pilgrim signed a value-based contract with Spark Therapeutics. In the deal, Harvard Pilgrim pays for Luxturna, but is refunded certain undisclosed amounts if the treatment wears off over time.

In 2019, Bluebird Bio told investors that in preparation for the possible approval of LentiGlobin - which is named Zynteglo in Europe - it was seeking what it called “installment plan contracts.” Bluebird Bio proposed that insurers would pay installments over a period of up to five years. Furthermore, after an initial charge, Bluebird Bio would only get reimbursed if the one-time infusion benefits patients.

There are, however, significant challenges in implementing these kinds of frameworks. For example, in many countries, healthcare budgets have one-to-five-year terms, which don’t suit longer payment cycles spanning a patient’s lifetime. In addition, in the U.S. there is substantial churn at insurers, as beneficiaries frequently switch plans, which lowers the potential return on investment for payers. They’re saddled with very high upfront costs without necessarily experiencing the downstream long-term benefits and cost offsets.

Looking to the future, it’s not as if drug companies appear to want to lower their price points. If its gene therapy for patients with hemophilia A is approved by the FDA this year, BioMarin is considering pricing Valrox (valoctocogene roxaparvovec) between $2 and $3 million, which would make it the most expensive treatment in the world. CEO Jean-Jacques Bienaimé asserts that insurers have indicated in preliminary discussions that they are “comfortable” with the proposed price range. Well certainly if Valrox proves durable and cures hemophilia A, the $2 to $3 million price per unit would compare favorably to the lifetime cost of treatment for hemophilia A using existing therapies, which is around $25 million.

But, in my experience talking to payers, they are still wary about high upfront costs, particularly given the uncertainties surrounding efficacy and safety, and possible durability issues. Indeed, European payer reluctance to engage with Bluebird Bio with respect to its two products indicates the need for price concessions coupled with evidence generation to establish proof of efficacy, safety, and durability.

Moving forward, a dynamic pricing structure will likely be required, using a combination of installment plans and value-based arrangements. Moreover, in the U.S. context a solution to the churn problem must be found; perhaps through enhanced portability, so that when patients change insurers there’s mutual recognition of value-based contracts across payers.

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About the Author

Cohen is a health economist with more than 25 years of experience analyzing, publishing, and presenting on drug and diagnostic pricing and reimbursement, as well as healthcare policy reform initiatives. For 21 years, Cohen was an academic at Tufts University, the University of Pennsylvania, and the University of Amsterdam. Currently, and for the past 4 years, Cohen is an independent healthcare analyst and consultant on a variety of research, teaching, speaking, editing, and writing projects.

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