PHARMAC funds new medicine (mepolizumab) for severe asthma

Media release Medicines

Around 500 New Zealanders who have severe asthma will have access to a new medicine, mepolizumab, from next month.

Severe asthma sufferers who use mepolizumab are less likely to end up in hospital and less likely to experience their symptoms getting worse during an asthma attack.

One of those severe asthma sufferers is Alex, who has been taking steroids for over thirty years.  Four weeks ago, she had her first injection of mepolizumab.

Alex says, “I haven’t coughed in four weeks or had a severe attack and mepolizumab has already made a huge difference to my asthma – I am no longer breathless.”

Mepolizumab (brand name Nucala) is supplied by GlaxoSmithKline NZ Ltd.  Mepolizumab is used alongside preventers like inhaled steroids and long-acting reliever inhalers.  It is administered by injection every four weeks by a health professional.  

 “Our independent clinical experts recommended we fund mepolizumab, so we are really pleased to announce this decision” says Director of Operations Lisa Williams.

“We know this will be welcomed by those with severe asthma, their whanau and the healthcare sector.

 “PHARMAC will continue making the best choices we can, from within our fixed-budget, expanding available treatments for all New Zealanders using a robust, evidence-based approach. We know funded access to effective medicines is important to everyone – it’s important to us too because we strive to get the best health outcomes for all New Zealanders from the medicines we fund in a fair and equitable way.”

With the funding of mepolizumab, PHARMAC has now funded 12 new medicines and widened access to 32 since the beginning of the financial year.

Professor Richard Beasley, Head of the Asthma and Respiratory Foundation of New Zealand Adolescent and Adults Asthma Guidelines Group, welcomes the funding decision.

Professor Beasley says

“Mepolizumab is an extremely important asthma medication to have available for the treatment of the most severe asthma patients in New Zealand. Its use can dramatically improve the lives of the most severe patients, reducing their risk of life-threatening attacks resulting in hospital admission, and reducing their requirement for long term oral steroids. It is particularly pleasing that eligibility criteria are aligned with the soon to be released 2020 update version of the NZ asthma guidelines.” 


Background notes

  • Patients who are eligible for funding are people aged 12 and over with severe eosinophilic asthma who meet all the eligibility criteria. 
  • Eosinophils [ee-uh-sin-uh-fils] are normal white blood cells in the body. Severe asthma sufferers may have increased levels of eosinophils, which can worsen inflammation in the lung and cause severe asthma attacks.
  • The way it works is that mepolizumab is a monoclonal antibody that blocks a protein called interleukin-5 (IL-5). Blocking IL-5 limits the production of eosinophils, so it reduces the number of eosinophils in the bloodstream and lungs.
  • The decision notification is available on PHARMAC’s website 
  • The history of the application, including the consultation on the proposal to fund it, is available in our online AppTracker(external link)