The competition law issues of the CRISPR patent pool

CRISPR-Cas9 is heralded as a revolutionary gene editing technology that is regularly hitting the headlines for both its scientific promise and fiercely fought patent wars. Our colleagues have written extensively on these aspects (see here and here), but in this blog, we focus on the competition law issues which surround the growing trend for the creation of patent pools in the life sciences sector.

The creation of the CRISPR patent pool was announced last spring by MPEG LA, an organisation well-known for creating patent pools for consumer electronics. Thus far, only the Broad Institute has publically revealed that it has submitted patents for evaluation.

Patent pools can be subject to anti-trust scrutiny. Both the European and US competition authorities have provided guidance on this issue – see section 4.4 of the European Commission’s Technology Transfer Guidelines and section 5.5 of the US DOJ’s IP Licensing Antitrust Guidelines. These guidelines recognise the pro-competitive benefits of patent pools which can help integrate complementary technologies, reduce transaction costs, and limit cumulative royalties. In this case, there appears to be a clear pro-competitive benefit in offering a single licence for CRISPR technology as there currently exists a complex web of relevant patents that is growing by around 100 new patent families each month. 

Having said that, the competition authorities on both sides of the Atlantic also identify a number of competition law risks – namely, the risk of collusion, price fixing or foreclosure of alternative technologies. Indeed, the European Commission has previously investigated a patent pool for non-invasive prenatal testing (see our commentary here). The authorities’ guidance suggests principles which can reduce this risk. In particular, the European Commission suggests that:

  • Participation (as a licensor or licensee) should be open to all.
  • Only complementary technology should be included (inclusion of substitute technology is likely to infringe competition law). 
  • Independent experts should be involved in the creation and operation of the patent pool.
  • Safeguards against the exchange of sensitive information should be in place.

For the CRISPR pool, MPEG LA has made an open call for patents, and will evaluate each patent before it is accepted. Its involvement, as a separate licensing body, should play an important role in safeguarding against the exchange of sensitive information. Looking ahead, MPEG LA may reduce the competition law risk by reviewing the pooled patents regularly, and considering licensing parts of the pool separately. In the life sciences sector, strands of research can head off in entirely new directions such that only half of the pool may remain relevant. 

There are also commercial concerns for the CRISPR pool to overcome. Whilst technology and telecommunications pools are common, life science pools, such as the Golden Rice and Medicines Patent Pool, are rare and often not profit driven. One reason for this may be the prevalence of exclusive patent licensing in the sector, as well as the relative lack of interplay between technologies in traditional small molecule medicines. 

This leaves MPEG LA with a tricky tightrope to walk. Having the Broad Institute on board is a promising start, but UC Berkeley, holding the patent to the underlying technology, must also join for the pool to be commercially successful. Beyond these two key players, the selection of patents to include will require some tricky choices: too few patents and the pool fails to achieve its aim of reducing transaction costs and may deter some investment by potential licensees altogether; too many and patent holders may be concerned about the returns they will achieve, and be wary of making the necessary large investments in further research.

We’ll be looking out for any further developments and will post them to the CLIP Board as and when they occur.

Excessive pricing spreads to Denmark - a cautionary tale about exclusive licensing

Following cases in Italy, the UK and before the European Commission, the Danish authorities have reached an abuse of dominance finding against CD Pharma (CDP). 

CDP was found to have imposed price increases of up to 2,000% on supplies of Syntocinon, without any justification in terms of increased costs. The product, used in connection with childbirth, is long off patent. 

Two points mark this case out from other excessive pricing investigations.

First, this is as much a cautionary tale about exclusive licensing as it is about excessive pricing. In acquiring an exclusive licence to what appears to be a ‘must stock’ product for hospitals CDP acquired a dominant position, leading to the risk of abuse. 

While exclusive licensing between non-competitors generally does not raise competition concerns, it is notable that Commission guidance refers specifically to the justification for exclusive licensing as the bringing of a new product to market. In the case of an old product which does not require further development, the basic justification for the exclusivity appears to be missing. In this case, if competitor Orifarm had been able to approach the manufacturer of Syntocinon rather than having to purchase from CDP as the local distributor, there would have been a greater chance of price competition on the Danish market. 

Second, the Danish authority is alive to the wider (umbrella) harm caused by the pricing strategy which extend beyond the period of direct infringement. The press release refers to the risk of permanent price increases - in particular where products are procured through periodic tender processes. This could be a significant point in any attempt by the Danish authorities to seek damages in  respect of the abuse. 


French competition authority fines pharma company for its anti-generic ‘commando’ sales tactics

On 20 December 2017, the French competition authority, the Autorité de la Concurrence (ADLC) announced that it had fined Janssen-Cilag and its parent company Johnson & Johnson €25 million for having delayed the entry and subsequent development of generic alternatives to the drug Durogesic.  The ADLC focused on two distinct types of behaviour:  repeated attempts to persuade the French regulatory body, the Agence française de sécurité sanitaire des produits de santé (AFSSAPS), which were characterised as frivolous and without merit; and a sustained marketing campaign by Janssen-Cilag aimed at undermining the efficacy of the generics before medical practitioners.  

Background.  Durogesic is a powerful opioid analgesic, marketed in France by Janssen-Cilag, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.  It is prescribed in cases of severe pain, including those suffering from cancer and is administered in the form of a skin patch.

Interventions with medical authorities. Following authorisation in Germany of its generic formulation, Ratiopharm sought to obtain mutual recognition across the European Union to enable distribution of its new medicine.  The European Commission gave its approval in October 2007, requiring member states to comply within 30 days.  However, Janssen-Cilag wrote on several occasions to AFSSAPS, requesting meetings and calling into question both the European Commission’s decision and its legal status in France.  Seeking to argue that the generics were not identical to Durogesic, Janssen-Cilag went so far as to question the efficacy and quality of the generic medicine, despite its bioequivalence having already been established.  Janssen-Cilag also raised potential public health concerns, questioning the impact that substitutions could cause to some patients.  This campaign was successful in delaying entry as AFSSAPS initially refused to recognise the generic drug, with authorisation following only one year later in 2008.

Targeted marketing campaign.  Following authorisation, Janssen-Cilag engaged in a marketing exercise which the ADLC found was aimed at casting aspersions on the efficacy and quality of the generic versions with doctors and pharmacists.  Its sales representatives were told to emphasise that generic alternatives did not have the same composition, nor quantity of active ingredient fentanyl as its Durogesic patch.  This involved Janssen-Cilag training a specialist team of 300 sales representatives known as “commandos” and sending out numerous newsletters direct to medical practitioners, supported by statements in the trade press.  In particular, Janssen-Cilag distorted the warning messages that had been issued by AFSSAPS, providing an incomplete and essentially alarmist message.  The campaign also resulted in screensavers installed on doctors’ computers giving a special warning, complete with warning triangles.  The campaign was so successful that a very low flat-rate reimbursement price was imposed by the French public authorities, fixing the price of the generic and the originator at the same low level.

Impact.  The ADLC considered these practices to be very serious, delaying the entry of the generic in France by several months, whereas the ‘smear’ campaign was successful in ensuring a low penetration rate of the generic alternatives even after their launch.  The ADLC report that 12,800 pharmacies, accounting for just over half of all French pharmacies, were subject to direct discussions.  Janssen-Cilag itself conducted a survey to evaluate the effects of its campaign which concluded that 83% of pharmacists had memorised the risks associated with switching between fentanyl products.  In addition, 12,000 French doctors have the screensaver installed on their computers.

Comment.  This is not the first time that the ADLC has fined pharmaceutical companies for defamatory practices, with both Sanofi-Aventis and Schering-Plough being fined in 2013 for similar activities (see here).  The question of misleading statements about product safety has also recently been addressed at EU level in the context of anti-competitive agreements, with Advocate General Saugmandsgaard concluding that an agreement to present scientific information in a misleading or unbalanced fashion is likely to restrict competition by object (more details here – and watch this space for the CJEU ruling due in a couple of weeks).

Nor is it the first time that Janssen has got into hot water over the marketing of Fentanyl – the marketing of this drug in the Netherlands was central to the European Commission’s 2013 decision in which fines totalling €10.7M were issued (the parties did not appeal this finding).

However, whilst there can be little surprise in the ADLC seeking to sanction the behaviour of Janssen-Cilag in the post-launch phase (particularly given the misleading nature of the communications to medical practitioners), its success in delaying entry onto the market in the first place seems to be as much the fault of AFSSAPS as a consequence of Janssen-Cilag’s regulatory interventions.  The case appears very different from the conduct sanctioned in AstraZeneca, where patent authorities had no reason to doubt the factual information provided.  Although the ADLC refers in this case to ‘legally unjustified’ arguments being presented, it also makes clear that the European Commission’s approval was binding on the French authority, something which should have been clear to AFSSAPS.


Dutch Health Council’s proposal of compulsory licensing as solution to high pharma prices

Shortly before becoming the new home of the EMA, the Netherlands piqued the interest of the pharma industry with a controversial move on drug pricing.  The move consisted of a recommendation by the Dutch Council for Public Health and Society (“RVS”) that the government should use compulsory licences when a medicine is priced too high, or in RVS’s words, does not have a “socially acceptable price”. In this article, we touch upon the significance of such a proposition in the regulatory sphere, as in our regulatory colleagues’ eyes this could result in a violation of the established IP regulatory rights enacted in EU legislation.  However, for now our focus is on the significance of the move from a competition law standpoint.

Readers of this blog will be more used to thinking about price reduction measures and compulsory licensing issues through the lens of competition law.  However, the RVS bases its recommendation in part on Article 8 of the TRIPs Agreement, which allows measures that protect public health or prevent the (anti-competitive) abuse of intellectual property rights resulting in the unreasonable restraint of trade or of international transfer of technology.  Further provisions relevant to compulsory licensing are covered in Article 31 of TRIPs, which provides for certain rights to use the subject matter of a patent without the rights holder’s authorisation, provided rights holders are remunerated for the licence based on the “economic value of the authorisation”. 

In recent years, considerable attention has been given by competition authorities to possible instances of excessive pricing.  To date, those cases (such as Pfizer/Flynn, currently on appeal before the UK’s Competition Appeal Tribunal, or the latest Statements of Objections issued by the Competition and Markets Authority (“CMA”) to Actavis and Concordia) have focussed on prices of legacy generic products. By contrast, the RVS’s proposal is firmly focussed on cost containment measures for new, patent-protected, medicines, but is not limited to potential blockbusters.  

The RVS’s criticism of current prices and consequently its recommendations extend to orphan drugs (medicines for very rare diseases affecting less than five out of 10,000 people in the EU population), which by definition benefit only a very small part of the population. The relatively high cost of R&D and production for orphan drugs, juxtaposed against the narrower reach/ patient pool and thus lower profit margin, has resulted in the EMA providing additional incentives for the development and commercialisation of those products. The Dutch authority’s recommendations therefore appear somewhat contrary to the spirit of the EMA’s policies aiming at encouraging investment by innovators in these areas, but is perhaps motivated by concerns expressed by some around the increasing use of orphan drug status (the concept of ‘orphanizing’, alluded to here). 

There is an absence of any definition of or set of criteria to determine what might constitute ‘high’ or ‘socially unacceptable’ pricing. The RVS proposal is not a new concept and in fact the subject of high or ‘excessive’ pricing in the pharma industry has occupied European stakeholders and has been the subject of investigations on a national and European level over the past few years. In June 2015, in response to a European Parliament  member’s (MEP) suggestion of compulsory licensing as a means to lower drug prices, the Commission stated that this is a matter to be dealt with at national level and that neither the Commission nor the EMA are competent to take such action.

The UK’s approach to compulsory licensing differs significantly from the Dutch proposal. Compulsory licensing is a rare breed in the UK, as it is only a measure to be taken for an abuse of monopoly stemming from patent rights – and it is very often the case that the relevant authorities prefer alternative means. Where new drugs are concerned, the question of cost effectiveness of medical treatments lies primarily in the hands of NICE.  As noted above, the CMA has been particularly active over the past year in pursuing practices which result in elevated prices for generic pharmaceuticals  But rather than automatically holding that very high prices are inherently anticompetitive, the CMA appears to draw a distinction between abusive ‘excessive pricing’, which is artificially and unjustifiably inflated pricing or increased pricing once a gap in competition on the market is identified, and high pricing which properly reflects the cost of development and production of a new drug. 

Our (not excessively priced) two pennies’ worth on this proposal is that imposing a compulsory licensing system for drugs which are not priced in a ‘socially acceptable way’ is, at best, a vague proposition which is likely to alarm and be met with adamant opposition by the industry. With much uncertainty as to what may constitute ‘excessive pricing’ or the ‘appropriate remuneration’ for the rights holder, there will be great scope for dispute. From a regulatory perspective, the fact that this measure might make it possible for governments to bypass rights such as the regulatory data protection (RDP) is a concerning prospect.  More generally, this proposal strikes at the heart of the delicate balance between long-run innovation incentives in a high risk/high reward sector, and short-term costs considerations around access to existing medicines.  The struggle between both sides of this debate looks set to continue.

French Pharma – French Competition Authority launches new sector enquiry

The CMA has opened an unprecedented number of new investigations in the pharmaceutical sector in the past month, with 4 new investigations during October 2017 (see the ‘update’ section here).  However, the CMA is not the only national competition authority to be focusing its attention on the pharmaceutical sector, as, on 20 November 2017, the French Autorité de la concurrence announced a new enquiry into the industry. The issues set to be addressed have been recently covered by the French authorities in a 2013 sector enquiry (and see our earlier post here), so it will be interesting to see whether any progress has been made.

The new enquiry will again examine the pharmaceutical distribution chain.  First, it will look at the changing role of intermediaries. The previous enquiry had found that intermediaries such as wholesale distributors and purchasing group networks often struggled to counter the market power of the large manufacturing companies.  A particular source of difficulty arose from the decision of many pharmaceutical companies to start selling direct to the large pharmacy chains. This is particularly challenging to smaller pharmacies who are unable to match the buying power of the chains and then offer their customers competitive prices. The current enquiry will investigate whether the intermediaries are playing a greater role compared to 2013, particularly in regard to sale price dynamics.

This issue was also addressed by the UK authorities in an OFT Medicines Distribution Market Study in 2007. Traditionally, branded medicines for which a price had been agreed under the Pharmaceutical Price Regulation Scheme (PPRS) were supplied to the NHS via intermediaries such as wholesalers. However, some manufacturers were starting to implement ‘Direct to Pharmacy’ (DTP) schemes and the OFT examined the potential impact of these new arrangements. The study found that whilst DTP schemes could bring efficiency benefits, there were also risks of cost increases to the NHS due to the lack of purchasing choice available to pharmacists who frequently have no choice over which medicine to dispense (for an example of this in action see the Pfizer/Flynn excessive pricing case which we covered here). 

Second, the new enquiry notes that France has heavy regulatory restrictions on the sale of non-prescription medicines. The Autorité has previously recommended that such restrictions be gradually removed, and in particular that online sales be permitted. This was in response to the finding that the “intensity of competition between dispensing chemists is relatively low, as demonstrated by major differences in pricing observed for medicinal products that are not reimbursed”. However these recommendations have not yet been implemented, whereas many of France’s European neighbours do allow online sales. The enquiry will therefore examine this topic again, taking into account new developments and ideas such as the creation of pharmacy chains and their flotation, and the relaxation of rules around advertising.

As reflected by the CMA’s recent investigations (see Pfizer/Flynn above, as well as the statements of objections sent to Actavis (in December 2016) and to Concordia (within the past week)), the Autorité will also look at pricing.  In France there are two categories of pharmaceuticals: reimbursable products where the price is set by negotiation between the French Economic Committee for Healthcare Products and the manufacturers, and generic medicines where prices are set by the market (as in the UK, until the recent passing of new legislation).  In 2013 the Autorité had observed that some generic products were subject to inflated prices due to the “existence of considerable ‘disguised’ rebates”.  Since 2013, a scheme has been implemented under which rebates have to be declared to the regulatory authorities. This new enquiry will therefore examine whether this scheme has been successful, and whether the heavy discounts often given by the pharmaceutical companies to the dispensing chemists are passed onto consumers. The enquiry also plans to examine the criteria used in the negotiation of reimbursable medicines, as well as the bargaining power of hospitals when negotiating prices with pharmaceutical companies.

In due course we will report further on how the Autorité views the current state of the French medicines distribution market and whether it leads to any infringement investigations following on from the sector inquiry.

Economical with the truth? When providing misleading information to authorities might be an object infringement

One of the more intriguing Opinions to be given by an Advocate General recently came out in late September (Case C-179/16, F. Hoffmann-La Roche and Others v Autorità Garante della Concorrenza e del Mercato (AGCM), Opinion of Advocate General Saugmandsgaard Øe delivered on 21 September 2017). 

 It is full of interesting observations on market definition in the pharma sector; the distinction between object and effect; how to look at the question of competition between licensors and licensees under the Technology Transfer Regulation; and how to assess whether a restriction of competition exists. We will be writing about these (and more) a bit later, but thought that in the meantime those of you who are particularly interested in Life Sciences might want to take a look at our sister blog On The Pulse. A short article has been posted there which briefly summarises the Advocate General’s views on whether there is a duty on pharma companies under Article 101 not to agree to provide information which is objectively misleading to the regulatory authorities. In this instance the information found to be misleading related to the relative safety of two products, one of which was authorised to treat ophthalmic conditions and one of which was not, but which was being prescribed off-label – so quite unusual circumstances (although perhaps a situation that could be expected to arise more in future, as second, third and fourth medical uses become the norm).

You may remember that a similar legal issue has already been discussed under Article 102 in the AstraZeneca case (see here and here) where dominant companies were found to be subject to a duty to act transparently when dealing with the patent authorities. The extent of the duty was somewhat modified by the CJEU, but the obligation to provide all relevant information, and to clarify information which subsequently turns out to be incorrect, still exists. It will be interesting to see whether the CJEU follows the Advocate General in his approach to identifying a similar duty under Article 101, and whether the Advocate General’s expansive reading of when information may be misleading is approved by the Court.

Pat Treacy

Product hopping: The competition law risks of launching new product formulations

‘Product hopping’, or ‘evergreening’, are expressions used (by competition authorities and industry respectively) to describe strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies to protect sales of a successful drug on the verge of losing patent protection. For example, a pharmaceutical company might introduce a new formulation of the drug before it faces significant competition from a generic alternative.

There is nothing inherently wrong with product hopping. The European Court of Justice has recognised that it is legitimate for pharmaceutical companies to adopt strategies seeking to minimise the erosion of their sales when faced with competition from generic products1. In addition, the development of a new and improved formulation of a drug can be extremely beneficial, both to the patients that might find it more effective, and to society as a whole for the jobs created in researching, manufacturing and marketing the new product.

However, there is a growing line of case law in the US and Europe that illustrate the competition law risks involved with product hopping. In all of these cases, the issue has not been the introduction of a new formulation. Instead, it has been other specific elements of the strategies employed by pharmaceutical companies to encourage consumers to switch to the new formulation that have caught the attention of the courts and regulators, particularly where this has prevented consumers from having a choice between a branded drug and generic version. 

Europe

Cases in Europe offer some clear examples of this. When withdrawing Losec capsules in favour of new Losec tablets, AstraZeneca deregistered its marketing authorisation for Losec capsules in several EU Member States. This prevented generics manufacturers from relying upon the clinical trials conducted for Losec capsules when applying for authorisation for a generic version, making it for more difficult for generics to enter the market. The deregistrations, in the absence of any objective justification, were found to be an abuse of a dominant position2.

In the UK, Reckitt Benckiser replaced its original Gaviscon product with a new version, Gaviscon Advance. This was done after the original patent had expired but before a generic name for the original product had been published, with the result that prescriptions could only be written for the new branded product. In finding that this was an abuse, the UK regulator held that it would have been commercially irrational to withdraw the original product had it not been for the anticipated benefits of delaying generic competition3.

In both cases, the introduction of the new product was not anti-competitive, however, the combination of that and the exploitation of the underlying regulatory framework was found to breach competition law.

USA

In the US, the focus has also been on actions by pharmaceutical companies that remove the consumer’s ability to choose. 

In State of New York v Actavis4, a US Appeal Court drew a distinction between a ‘soft switch’ and a ‘hard switch’. Actavis manufactured a successful twice-daily Alzheimer’s drug, Namenda IR. In 2013, it introduced a once-daily version, Namenda XR. The new drug contained the same active ingredient, memantine. Actavis began an aggressive marketing campaign to switch patients on to Namenda XR, and made use of rebates to offer it at a low price. This was the soft switch. Then, in August 2014, a year before it was due to lose patent protection on Namenda IR, Actavis discontinued it. The Court described this as a hard switch; the discontinuation left Namenda XR as the only option for patients before the entry of a generic version of Namenda IR. The court held that the hard switch crossed the line from persuasion to coercion, and was anti-competitive.

More recently, in early September 2017, the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania denied Indivior’s motion to dismiss a claim brought against it by the State of Wisconsin (along with a number of other States) alleging anti-competitive behaviour relating to its marketing and sale of Suboxone5. In finding that Wisconsin had a plausible claim, the court noted that Indivior had near simultaneously introduced a new Suboxone film, removed its Suboxone tablets from the market, and engaged in a marketing campaign to disparage Suboxone tablets. This was done before the entry of generic competitors into the relevant market, leading to a restriction of the ability of consumers to choose between the branded products and a generic alternative.

Interestingly, although the plaintiffs characterise Indivior’s conduct as a hard switch, the generic alternative to Suboxone tablets had been on the market for almost two weeks before the tablets were withdrawn. Arguably, Suboxone tablet prescriptions could simply have been replaced with generic tablets at this point. However, realistically this could only occur for patients who needed to renew their prescriptions in that short period of time. In addition, the plaintiffs claim that even by the time generic tablets received FDA approval in February 2013, 85% of Suboxone prescriptions were already for film instead of tablets. If this case proceeds to trial, the focus may therefore be on the soft switch elements to Indivior’s strategy: the disparagement of tablets leading to the rapid take-up of film. In denying the motion to dismiss, the judge noted that summary judgment record might be different, suggesting that he wasn’t completely convinced by the merits of the plaintiffs’ case.

Will the case law develop further?

It’s possible that in the future we may see competition authorities or courts seeking to penalise conduct that is closer to a soft switch than hard switch. After all, in France in 2016, the Cour de Cassation upheld the €40.6m fine imposed on Sanofi-Aventis by the French Competition Authority in May 20136. Sanofi-Aventis was found to have denigrated generic competitors of its drug Plavix in its communications with doctors and pharmacists; it encouraged them to indicate on Plavix subscriptions that the drug was “non-substitutable”. This was not a hard switch – there was a generic alternative available, but the conduct had a similar effect to a hard switch; it partially foreclosed generic entry to the French clopidogrel market (leading to a softening of competition, as Sanofi lost market share to generics much more slowly than it otherwise would have). 

For now though, it remains the case that pharmaceutical companies can continue to take steps to extend the lifetime of their product ranges, as long as they are careful to ensure that any introduction of a new formulation is not supported by a strategy that limits the ability of generics of the earlier formulation to enter the market. Where companies avoid that potential pitfall, the introduction of new formulations benefits patients: and pharmaceutical companies’ promotion of those positive attributes epitomises legitimate competition on the merits.

______________________________________________
1 AstraZeneca v Commission, Case C-457/10 P, at 129.
2 AstraZeneca v Commission, Case C-457/10 P.
3 Decision of the Office of Fair Trading, predecessor to the Competition and Markets Authority, in Case CE/8931/08, decision of 12 April 2011 at 6.64.
4 State of New York v. Actavis, Case No. 14-4624 (2d Cir. 2015)
5 State of Wisconsin et al. v. Indivior Inc. et al., case number 2:16-cv-05073.

Introducing On the Pulse – the Bristows life sciences microsite

Bristows has recently launched On the Pulse, a microsite offering legal analysis and practical tools that our life sciences readers may find useful.

The site is organised by sector, covering pharmaceuticals, biotech, medical devices, health care and animal health. There is a Brexit section, touching on many aspects from data protection to tax issues, and from scientific funding to the UPC. The Tools menu allows access to a number of standard documents in different areas, including competition/procurement

There are already a number of competition focused posts from our regular contributors, with Aimee Brookes writing about excessive pricing, Matthew Hunt on product hopping and rebates, Noel Watson-Doig on the NHS approach to biosimilar procurement and on standardisation agreements in pharma and Francion Brooks on CMA enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector. We hope our readers find it a useful resource and we will continue to link to any relevant articles from here.

Excessive Pricing: Aspen lose their appeal in Italy – and are in the Commission’s crosshairs

Last year we reported the Italian’s take on excessive pricing (here), where South African pharmaceutical Aspen was in the firing line for increasing the price of four cancer drugs by a hefty 300% – 1500%. The Italian Market Competition Authority (AGCM) found that this amounted to an abuse of dominance by artificially inflating the price of the drugs, which had long been off patent. The company was fined €5.2 million in October 2016. 

On 14 June 2017 Aspen lost all grounds of its appeal against the AGCM decision (the judgment – in Italian only – is here).

This loss for Aspen was set against a troubling back drop for the company: not only had the South African Competition Commission announced an investigation into Aspen, Pfizer and Roche for suspected collusion over cancer drug prices just days earlier, but on 15 May 2017 the European Commission opened a formal investigation into Aspen in relation to excessive pricing of five cancer drugs. 

The Commission’s press release states that – in addition to investigating the apparently ‘significant and unjustified’ price hikes applied to Aspen’s products – the Commission is also looking at the way in which Aspen threatened to withdraw the drugs in issue from Member States.  This was also an influential fact in the AGCM decision and subsequent appeal ruling by the Italian Appeal Court. 
 
The separate statement recording the opening of proceedings suggests that the Commission’s focus is wider than simply the negotiation of prices with national health authorities. It notes that Aspen’s negotiation practices “have included reducing the direct medicine supply and/or threatening supply reductions, as well as defining EAA-wide stock allocation strategies and implementing them in cooperation and/or agreement with local wholesalers”. It has been a while since stock management has been subject to scrutiny by the Commission, and this is likely to be an unwelcome development for the industry more widely. For now, it is probably safe to assume that this aspect of the investigation is ancillary to the primary case on pricing issues.

Meanwhile, back in the UK, the date for an appeal of the (now-published) Pfizer/Flynn decision has been set by the Competition Appeal Tribunal – a four-week hearing is due to start on 30 October. 

The Commission steps into the excessive pricing arena

An announcement by the European Commission last week resolves an open question about its view on the recent spate of pharma sector excessive pricing cases that have been seen in Italy and the UK.  The Commission has now confirmed that, following dawn raids across four member states in February, it has opened an investigation into Aspen Pharma for suspected breach of Article 102.  The concern is that Aspen’s pricing practices in relation to off patent drugs containing five ingredients used for treating cancer has led to unjustified price increases.  This overlaps with the Italian Market Competition Authority’s decision in October 2016 to fine Aspen €5.2 million for unfair price increases, which covered four of the five ingredients now under investigation (see here for our report).

This is the Commission’s first excessive pricing case in the pharma sector, following a trend set by the national competition authorities (including in the UK and US – although given that US antitrust does not apply to pure pricing issues, the US cases have tended to focus on another form of abuse (e.g. here) which led to the excessive prices).  

The EU NCAs have been well placed to deal with such conduct, as pharma markets are national in scope, and subject to significant regional differences resulting from the different formation of public health services.  However, setting the benchmark price is a difficult – and controversial – aspect in any investigation (see here for our thoughts on the CMA’s recent approach) and it will be of interest to see how the Commission tackles the issue, as its approach may well be followed by other NCAs.  

Bearing these points in mind, we will be particularly keen to see how the Commission deals with the following two points: 

  1. The definition of the relevant market and whether a company is dominant – before assessing whether its prices are excessive, a pharma company must first know whether it is dominant.  With diverging approaches on product market definition (definitions have been drawn from therapeutic / molecular / dosage level and from regulatory guidance), it can be difficult to make an assessment of dominance.  In Aspen’s case, it has found itself  one of few companies willing to manufacture low volume generic drugs, and despite low barriers to entry, no other companies have entered the market to exert a form of price control on Aspen.  It has perhaps therefore become dominant as a result of market failures.    
      
  2. How the Commission determines an acceptable level of profit (i.e., what is the meaning of ‘excessive’?).  While under patent protection, pharmaceutical product prices are generally constrained in some way (e.g. through profit caps under the UK PPRS), but in theory, profits could be competed upwards following patent expiry, even if overall prices decline (this is a key part of the argument raised by Pfizer and Flynn in their appeals of the CMA infringement decision).  The recent opinion of AG Wahl considering unfair prices (albeit in a copyright licence context) concluded that there is no single method of determining the benchmark, and acknowledges that there is a high risk of error, but a price should only be excessive if it is significantly and persistently above whatever benchmark is determined.  Whilst AG Wahl was unable to point to any guaranteed failsafe methods of analysis, he stated that an authority should only intervene when there is no doubt that an abuse has been committed. 

The investigation does signal that the Commission is keen to address the fairness of pricing in the pharmaceutical industry, but as with all such investigations, its approach should not be one of a price regulator.  Indeed, the Commission is at pains to point out that it is looking at a case where the price increases were extremely significant (100s of percent uplift).  It may reveal that a case-by-case approach is not appropriate, and the real issue is regulatory failure that will need to be corrected by legislation (such as that currently before the UK Parliament).