Partial annulment of Servier decision by the General Court – some good news for pharma innovators at last

The General Court has today handed down its judgment in the long-running Servier patent settlement case.  

It remains a rare event that the European Courts annul Commission decisions under Article 101 and, in particular, Article 102.  In this case, the General Court has partially annulled the 900 page decision.  In doing so, it has – subject to the outcome of further appeals – considerably reduced the range of competition law risks facing pharmaceutical companies.

Of particular note for innovators is the complete annulment of the fine for abuse of dominance.  The General Court has found that the Commission has failed to substantiate the alleged relevant market, and thus wrongly found that Servier held a dominant position in the EU.  

In the Decision, the Commission had held that perindopril, a treatment for hypertension, was a relevant market in itself.  This was despite it being one of a large class of drugs (‘ACE inhibitors’) with an essentially identical mode of action, and in relation to which clinical guidance existed which treated the products as substitutable.  The General Court has held that the Commission was wrong to rely on Servier’s promotional materials to claim that differences existed between the different members of the class of drugs, under-estimated the amount of switching which took place between different ACE inhibitors (in some cases driven by cost considerations on the part of organisations such as Clinical Commissioning Groups in the UK) and attributed too much importance to price in its analysis.  In its decision, the Commission had carried out a so-called ‘natural events’ analysis, which found that the only significant impact on sales volumes was sustained when perindopril generics entered the market.  The General Court has held that this paid insufficient attention to clinical decision-making, something the Commission had explicitly ruled out when considering what was relevant for market definition.

Although the particular market definition in this case is of limited relevance to third parties, the Commission’s failure to demonstrate that perindopril competed only with generics of the same drug has significantly wider implications for competition authorities’ ability to bring future abuse of dominance cases which rely on artificial differentiations between drugs with an equivalent mode of action.  Subject to the outcome of any appeal by the Commission to the Court of Justice, the position should now revert back to that established in AstraZeneca, which focuses on prescribers’ considerations as to the different therapeutic uses of the different drugs.  While a first in class product may still give rise to a dominant position in a period before further similar products come to market, a later drug is likely sit within the same relevant market, and will therefore be less likely to gain a dominant position (subject to market share growth, and specific factors which may indicate that a separate market in fact exists in a given case).  

As well as annulling the Article 102 portion of the case in its entirety, the General Court has also annulled the fine in relation to one of the anti-competitive agreements identified by the Commission, which was alleged to consist of a withdrawal from litigation in the UK in return for the grant of a licence in another Member State.  This annulment will also be welcome news to the pharmaceutical industry, as it may permit greater flexibility for companies wishing to enter into licensing agreements in tandem with settlements.  Provided any licensing agreement remains an arm’s length arrangement, at commercial rates, the risk that this will be categorised as an ‘inducement’ to settle the litigation now appears lower.

We conclude with a welcome recognition from the General Court of the value of patent protection and of patent settlements: “…intellectual property rights are protected by the Charter of Fundamental Rights, to which the Treaty of Lisbon has conferred the same legal value as the Treaties. …As regards patents, … when granted by a public authority, a patent is presumed to be valid and an undertaking’s ownership of that right is presumed to be lawful. The General Court emphasises, lastly, the importance of settlement agreements, since the parties to a dispute should be authorised, indeed encouraged, to conclude settlement agreements rather than pursuing litigation. The General Court concludes that the adoption of settlement agreements in the field of patents is not necessarily contrary to competition law.

Case T 691/14, judgment of 12 December 2018, press release here, full judgment (currently available only in French) here.

CLIP of the month: What is the best response to higher prices in the pharma sector?

Pricing issues in the pharmaceutical industry continue to keep European competition authorities busy. From the UK excessive pricing case involving Pfizer and Flynn (which has been remitted to the CMA following appeal – see here and here), and the Italian Aspen case (see here and here), to the European Commission’s continuing Aspen investigation (see here). Indeed, excessive pricing in the pharma sector was one of the topics discussed last week at the 130th Meeting of the Competition Committee of the OECD. The briefing paper for that session is our CLIP of the month.

The OECD paper provides a useful overview of recent competition law enforcement relating to excessive pricing in the pharma market, noting that such cases generally meet the stringent requirements developed in academic literature for the bringing of such cases: the presence of significant market power and high and durable barriers to entry, in scenarios where intervention will not adversely affect innovation, and where alternative regulatory intervention is not possible/inappropriate. In particular, the paper notes that each of the recent cases in Europe relates to:

  • medicines that have long been off-patent meaning that there were not R&D and investment recoupment justifications for high prices, nor concerns with interfering with innovation;
  • medicines which are essential to patients, and for which there was no prospect of timely market entry of alternative products (either because of supply constraints, the regulatory framework, or the limited size of the market); and
  • price increases which were sudden and significant, in respect of products that had long been in the market.

The OECD paper also notes that regulatory intervention in those cases was perceived to be unable to provide an appropriate, or at least timely, response to the price increase. Indeed, in light of the specific market and regulatory conditions, the stringent requirements for excessive pricing cases are more likely to be satisfied in the pharma sector. However, the OECD paper recognises that such cases are unavoidably fact-specific, operate ex post, are subject to high error risks and costs, and rarely set out bright-line guidance on how to set accurate prices. It therefore suggests that competition authorities should consider deploying other tools at their disposal including market studies, regulation, and joint initiatives with sectoral regulators. 

This is not the first we have seen of calls for broader methods for dealing with higher prices in the pharma market. Last year we reported on a recommendation by the Dutch Council for Public Health and Society for the government to use compulsory licences when a medicine is priced too high, or above a “socially acceptable price” (see here). However, there have not yet been any reports on the Dutch government’s response to that recommendation. 

In the UK at least, it seems that the CMA will not be abandoning its traditional competition tools for dealing with excessive pricing. In its contribution to the OECD meeting it states that new specific regulatory regimes are not always preferable to antitrust enforcement, as legislation takes time to implement and is generally fails to address the historic harm caused by higher prices. The CMA also emphasises that excessive pricing cases are important as a matter of policy, given that “[e]nsuring consumers are not exploited by unfairly high prices is at the heart of antitrust enforcement”.