Amgen's new migraine drug is affordably priced at only $6,900 a year

Last Updated May 21, 2018 5:52 PM EDT

The high cost of prescription drugs is a hot topic in the U.S., a factor likely on the minds of Amgen executives in setting the price of a new treatment for migraine headaches.

The drug, to be sold under the name Aimovig, was approved by the Food and Drug Administration on Thursday. Belonging to a group of therapies called CGRP-inhibitors, the new option is designed to prevent the reoccurring, painful headaches. The price: $6,900 a year, or $575 for once monthly self-injections.

Although that might seem expensive, especially if the drug isn't covered by insurance, the pricing drew praise from Express Scripts, the biggest U.S. pharmacy benefit manager (PBM). "Amgen's decision to price the drug at the lower end of the value based price range demonstrates their commitment to put patients first," Express Scripts said in an email.

Express Scripts has previously urged Amgen to rethink its approach of setting a high list price for new medications and then cutting the cost for health plans by offering large rebates. 

Critics of PBMs blame them for contributing to the surge in prescription drug costs in recent years, especially the practice of offering rebates to pharmaceutical firms. President Trump vowed last week to "bring soaring drug prices back down to Earth," specifically by reining in "middlemen" like Express Scripts.

The price of Aimovig, which is expected to be available to U.S. patients within a week, reflects the "value it brings to patients and society" Amgen said in a news release. Amgen, which will co-market the drug with Novartis, said it would cover most out-of-pocket expenses for eligible patients who have health insurance.

"I think we see the decision taken in the U.S. to price absolutely responsibly," Novartis Pharmaceuticals CEO Paul Hudson said in a call with analysts on Friday to discuss the medication.

"Novel option"

Aimovig is the first drug specifically designed to prevent migraine, a condition that until now has been treated with "decades-old" therapies primarily intended to treat other afflictions, Anthony Hooper, Amgen's executive vice president of global commercial operations, said in the call. 

The FDA also thinks Aimovig could help migraine sufferers. "Aimovig provides patients with a novel option for reducing the number of days with migraine," Dr. Eric Bastings, deputy director of the Division of Neurology Products in the FDA's Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, said in a statement. "We need new treatments for this painful and often debilitating condition."

Shares of Amgen rose 1.3 percent on news of FDA approval for the drug, while Novartis shares were flat.

Other drug developers working on similar therapies include Teva Pharmaceutical and Eli Lilly.

The drug's target audience is the roughly 3.5 million Americans now being treated for migraine headaches, Amgen executives told analysts, who generally had expected Amgen to price the drug higher.

Women are three times more likely than men to suffer from migraine headaches, which afflict more than 10 percent of the world's population, according to the FDA.