The European Commission has fined Anglo-Swedish group AstraZeneca €60 million for misusing the patent system and the procedures for marketing pharmaceuticals to block or delay market entry for generic competitors to its ulcer drug Losec. The Commission has decided that AstraZenecas actions constitute serious abuses of its dominant market position in violation of EC and EEA competition rules.
Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes commented: "I fully support the need for innovative products to enjoy strong intellectual property protection so that companies can recoup their R & D expenditure and be rewarded for their innovative efforts. However, it is not for a dominant company but for the legislator to decide which period of protection is adequate. Misleading regulators to gain longer protection acts as a disincentive to innovate and is a serious infringement of EU competition rules. Health care systems throughout Europe rely on generic drugs to keep costs down. Patients benefit from lower prices. By preventing generic competition AstraZeneca kept Losec prices artificially high. Moreover, competition from generic products after a patent has expired itself encourages innovation in pharmaceuticals."
From 1993 to 2000 AstraZeneca infringed EC and EEA competition rules by blocking or delaying market access for generic versions of Losec and preventing parallel imports of Losec. AstraZeneca did this by:
-giving misleading information to several national patent offices in the EEA resulting in AstraZeneca gaining extended patent protection for Losec through so-called supplementary protection certificates (SPCs). In this specific case, the patent offices essentially relied on information supplied by AZ and they were not obliged as in normal patent assessments to consider whether the products were innovative. AZs misleading conduct amounted to an abuse in Belgium, Denmark, Germany, the Netherlands, Norway and the United Kingdom.
-misusing rules and procedures applied by the national medicines agencies which issue market authorisations for medicines by selectively deregistering the market authorisations for Losec capsules in Denmark, Norway and Sweden with the intent of blocking or delaying entry by generic firms and parallel traders. At the time, generic products could only be marketed and parallel importers only obtain import licenses if there was an existing reference market authorisation for the original corresponding product (Losec). The purpose of a market authorisation is the right to sell a medicine and not to exclude competitors. Unlike patents, SPCs and data exclusivity, market authorisations are not intended to reward innovation and the finding of an abuse cannot therefore affect incentives to innovate. Subsequent changes in the applicable EU legislation have made it impossible to repeat this specific conduct.
Losec pioneered a new generation of medicines to treat stomach ulcers and other acid-related diseases so-called proton pump inhibitors. Losec initially received patent protection in Europe in 1979. During part of this period, Losec was the worlds best-selling prescription medicine.
The Commissions decision does not prohibit AstraZenecas dominant position on the proton pump inhibitor market but the companys abuse of that position. The fine takes into account that some features of the abuses can be considered as novel.