Yesterday, EU Commissioner Neelie Kroes launched an inquiry into the workings of the pharmaceutical industry, especially into patent-dispute settlements between companies including Pfizer Inc., AstraZeneca Plc and Johnson & Johnson, which companies offices were raided yesterday by Commission officials. The reasons for this raid were expounded in a press release:
“We have launched this inquiry because pharmaceuticals markets are not working as well as they might. Patent protection has never been stronger, but the number of new pharmaceuticals coming to market is declining. Patents can sometimes be invented around and will always expire eventually, but generic manufacturers are not jumping into the markets as quickly as we would expect.”
Although this seems all new, it is not. Already in 2007 the industry has been the subject of scrutiny by national competition (antitrust) agencies, as well as by the EU Commission. The reason is well known. Pharmaceutical houses are becoming increasingly reliant on sales from blockbuster drugs--formulations that generate at least $1 billion a year in revenue. But sales of most drugs eventually decline because of patent expiration or competition from newer generic, treatments and drugs. The problem is that less new big selling drugs are in the pipeline. The arrival of cheaper generic variants pose a legal and political challenge for both the companies involved (research based as well as generic newbies) and the EU health authorities (and the competition agencies as a result thereof).
The UK Office of Fair Trading (OFT) already investigated in 2006 claims that Novartis attempted to impede generic market entry in relation to Clozapine, a schizophrenia drug. Allegedly this was a strategy of keeping the market price up by supplying potential generic competitors, charging them a relatively high price so that they could not undercut as much as they might otherwise have done. Very little detail is publicly known and the Competition Commission eventually cleared Novartis, issuing only a very short decision giving little detail.