EU regulator launches antitrust probe into pharmaceutical industry

The European Commission launched a probe into the pharmaceutical industry in an effort to determine whether companies are misusing patent rights or making illegal agreements to keep generic drugs off the market. The commission plans to report its initial findings this fall and issue a final report in spring of 2009.

European Commissioner for Competition Policy Neelie Kroes said Wednesday that the investigation was initiated because "pharmaceuticals markets are not working as well as they might... If innovative products are not being produced, and cheaper generic alternatives to existing products are being delayed, then we need to find out why and, if necessary, take action." According to the commission, the number of new drugs launched between 1995 and 1999 was 40 per year, but that number dropped to 28 per year between 2000 and 2004.

Kroes, who noted that the probe was not launched because of any known wrongdoing, said the inquiry will be looking for evidence of agreements between drugmakers, such as settlements in patent disputes, that may infringe antitrust regulations. The investigation will also look for the presence of artificial barriers to new or generic product entry, including vexatious lawsuits and the misuse of patent rights.

Companies including AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, sanofi-aventis, Merck & Co. and Novartis' Sandoz unit have all confirmed that they are cooperating with the investigation.

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