What are biosimilar medicines?

A biosimilar medicine is a highly similar version of a particular biological medicine. They are used to treat the same diseases, in the same way, as their reference biological medicine, but cost less.

Key points

  1. Biological medicines are used to treat many chronic conditions like arthritis, intestinal diseases, diabetes and cancer. 
  2. Unlike most traditional medicines that are made through chemical processes, biologic products are made of, or from, living things like yeasts, bacteria or animal cells. They usually have a more complex structure than other medicines.
  3. A biosimilar medicine is a highly similar version of a particular biological medicine, which is the first brand to market.
  4. The high cost of some biologic medicines means that they are often not affordable for patients or funders. Being cheaper, biosimilar medicines offer considerable potential to improve access for patients to these medicines.

What are biological medicines?

Biological medicines include products like:

  • vaccines
  • insulin to treat diabetes
  • hormones such as human growth hormone
  • some medicines used to treat cancer, arthritis and other auto-immune disorders.

Unlike most traditional medicines that are made through chemical processes, biologic products are made of, or from, living things like yeasts, bacteria or animal cells. They usually have a more complex structure than other medicines.

Biological medicines are not referred to as generic medicines. This is because the processes that produce biological medicines are naturally variable. No two batches of a biological medicine are ever exactly the same (even from the same manufacturer).

Biological medicines in New Zealand

Biological medicines are used to treat many chronic conditions like arthritis, intestinal diseases, diabetes and cancer.

They are growing in importance and taking on a greater share of health spending. There are many biological medicines in the development pipeline so this trend will only increase.

Biological medicines already account for a significant and growing proportion of New Zealand’s expenditure on medicines. In 2014/15 net expenditure on biological medicines used in the community was approximately a quarter of the total combined pharmaceutical budget.

What are biosimilar medicines?

A biosimilar medicine is a highly similar version of a reference biological medicine, which is the first brand to market. Biological medicines are not referred to as generic medicines. This is because the processes that produce biological medicines are naturally variable. No two batches of a biological medicine are ever exactly the same (even from the same manufacturer). Biosimilar medicines have been tested and shown to be as safe and effective as their reference biological medicines.


Image credits: What are biosimilar medicines? Department of Health, Australia 

Why are biosimilar medicines important?

The high cost of some biologic medicines means that they are often not affordable for patients or funders. Biosimilar medicines offer considerable potential for Pharmac to increase competition, reduce costs, and improve access for patients to these important medicines.

Biosimilar medicines are used extensively overseas. Countries with a high acceptance of biosimilar medicines include Austria, Germany, Greece, and Sweden. Australia and New Zealand regulators have also approved biosimilar medicines for use.

Early examples of Pharmac utilising biosimilar medicines to create competition for biological medicines include filgrastim (2012), somatropin, a type of growth hormone (2014), and infliximab (Remicade), a treatment for auto-immune disorders (2014).

See biologic medicines for more information. 

  Credits
Content used with permission from PHARMAC as part of a National Content Hub Collaborative