Spirit Behind Drug Patent Grant: Secondary Patents: Impact on Drug Access

For more effective treatment against existing diseases, besides combating new or a more complicated form of existing ailments with precision, drug innovation is absolutely necessary and on an ongoing basis. This makes innovative drugs so important for the population, globally.

Besides academia, the pharma industry has remained in the forefront of the search for new drugs, for so long. What makes this process so crucial is, cheaper generic drugs flow from the innovative drugs, post market exclusivity period, which together form the bedrock of the pharma industry’s business model. Consequently, a robust patent protection for the new molecular entities, not only enable the drug innovators to make a reasonably good profit, but also encourage them to keep this virtuous circle moving, faster.

Although, the drug patents are granted for 20 years, after obtaining marketing approval from the respective drug regulators, a time period - ranging between 7 and 12 years, is available to the company to realize its maximum commercial benefits. Thereafter, the patent expires, paving the way of market entry of cheaper generic equivalents to make the drug accessible to a larger population. This is the playbook, which deserves to be accepted and respected by all, both in the letter and spirit.

Currently, the narrative has started changing, apparently, repudiating the spirit behind the grant of new drug patents, especially with the entry of a number of expensive, large molecule biopharmaceutical drugs. After obtaining a fixed-term market exclusivity, more intricate legal measures are being taken to extend the fixed-term market monopoly for an unknown period, delaying market entry of cheaper biosimilar equivalents, post patent expiry, as long as possible.

In this milieu, India appears to be the only country in the world, where the country’s ‘Patents Act’ provides enough safeguard to blunt those legal tools, effectively, to protect patients’ health interest. Quite expectedly, this new narrative of the drug innovators is yielding the best return in the Eldorado of the pharma world – the Unites States. It is also no secret that US vehemently opposes several provisions of the Indian Patents Act 2005, under pressure from the most powerful pharma lobby group, as many believe.

Using the spirit behind drug patent protection as the backdrop, I shall dwell in this article, how this so precious spirit is gradually losing its basic purpose, especially for blockbuster biopharma drugs. Is the key intent behind sacrificing the spirit behind drug patent grant to keep their brands money spinners and big – even after expiry of original patent – as long as possible – at the cost of patients’ health interest?

Despite the original patent expiry, biggest biologic drugs remain big:

The fact that original patent expiries have done little to halt sales of some of the industry’s biggest products – mostly biologic drugs, was clearly elucidated in an  Evaluate Pharma article – “Biopharma’s biggest sellers – the oldies that just keep giving,” published on August 14, 2019. This gets vindicated, as we look at the ‘top ten pharma brands with biggest lifetime sales – from launch to 2018’, in the following Table I:

Product Company Launch year USD Billion
1. Lipitor Pfizer 1997 164.43
2 Humira AbbVie 2003 136.55
3. Rituxan Genentech/Biogen 1997 111.50
4. Enbrel Amgen 1998 108.16
5. Epogen Amgen 1988 107.90
6. Advair GSK 1998 104.20
7. Remicade Janssen 1998   98.00
8. Zantac GSK 1981   97.42
9. Plavix Sanofi/BMS 1998   90.63
10. Herceptin Genentech/Roche 1998   87.97

(Adapted from Evaluate Pharma data of August 14, 2019)

The point to take note of:

The point worth noting here, with the exception of Advair, Zantac, Lipitor and Plavix, all others – among the top ten brands, are biologic drugs. Moreover, what is most striking in the Table I, despite the expiry of the original patents, a large number of biologic brands were able to expand their sales, pretty impressively, for well over two decades. As we shall see later, this situation is expected to continue, at least, till 2024.  As the Evaluate Pharma article states, for various reasons, these multibillion dollar brands have been able to avoid the expected post patent expiry ‘onslaught from biosimilars in the key US market’, which is incidentally the most valuable pharma market in the world.

One of the key reasons that helps delaying cheaper biosimilar drug entry expanding patient access, is a crafty strategic measure adopted by these companies through the creation of a Patent Thicket with secondary patents. As I discussed in this Blog on April 22, 2019, this is a crafty way of ‘evergreening’ patent term beyond 20 years, legally. Whether such measures conform to the spirit of granting 20 years product patent, becomes a moral question, or an issue of probity for the concerned companies, at the most. Be that as it may, a concern over this situation has been raised in many countries, including the United States.

Barrier of secondary patents: 

Biosimilar drug developers continue facing multiple non-financial challenges, such as, scientific, regulatory, pricing. I have already discussed some of these barriers in this blog on July 31, 2017. Instead, I shall focus in this article, with greater detail, on the intricate and a well-woven net of secondary patents. However,before delving into this area, it will be worthwhile to have a quick recap on the basic differences between original patents and secondary patents.

According to WIPO, “Patents on active ingredients are referred to as primary patents. In later phases of the drug development, patents are filed on other aspects of active ingredients such as different dosage forms, formulations, production methods etc. These types of patents are referred to as secondary patents.”

Another excellent paper, authored by two distinguished researchers from Columbia University and LSE, makes some important points on this subject. It says, secondary patents have become increasingly important to the pharma industry, especially in the U.S. and Europe over the past three decades. The basic purpose of ‘taking out multiple patents on different aspects of a drug in order to cordon off competitors is now standard practice in the pharmaceutical industry.’ As the authors further said, this is primarily because: ‘Secondary patents can protect market shares by extending periods of exclusivity beyond the dates in which patent protection would otherwise lapse.’

Interestingly. devising patent strategies to extend periods of market exclusivity is generally considered in the industry, as a key component of ‘product life cycle management,’ – not by the marketing whiz kids, but by astute patent attorneys. Nevertheless, as the paper articulates, critics of this practice often use the more pejorative – evergreening, to describe it.

Examples of impact of secondary patents:

Many research papers suggest, besides scientific complexity in biosimilar drug development being a key reason for their delayed market entry, secondary patents are even tougher barriers for the same. This was brought to light a few years ago in a ‘Review Article’ – ‘The Economics of Biosimilars’, published in the September/October 2013 issue of American Health & Drug Benefits.

Some of the key points made on this issue include,AbbVie plan to defend Humira (adalimumab) with more than 200 secondary patents, Merck’s giving up its biosimilar project on Enbrel when Amgen got its expanded patent life. There are many other such instances.

Its effect would last longer: 

Experts believe, the effect of creating a strong secondary patent shield around blockbuster biologic would last much longer. As the above Evaluate Pharma article underscores: ‘This ability to fend off biosimilar competition is one of the reasons Humira is set to snatch Lipitor’s crown next year as the industry’s most successful drug.’

The Table II below that lists ‘top 10 pharma brands from their respective launch date, including estimated forecast till 2024’, vindicates its long-lasting impact:

Product Company Launch year USD Billion
1. Humira AbbVie 2003 240.05
2 Lipitor Pfizer 1997 180.19
3. Enbrel Amgen 1998 139.83
4. Rituxan Genentech/Biogen 1997 136.07
5. Revlimid Celgene 2008 123.64
6. Remicade Janssen 1998 117.20
7. Epogen Amgen 1988 115.87
8. Herceptin Genentech/Roche 1998 114.89
9. Avastin Genentech/Roche 2004 114.27
10. Advair GSK 1998 113.61

(Adapted from Evaluate Pharma data of August 14, 2019)

Although, Zantac and Plavix no longer feature in this table, one drug that leapfrogged much of the competition to become one of the industry’s biggest future bestsellers is Revlimid. The projected sales of the drug over the next six years will actually outstrip its sales to date. However, much of this is dependent on whether generic competition will arrive ahead of Revlimid’s 2022 patent expiry, the paper indicated.

Concern expressed even in the US for the delay in biosimilar market entry:

Many big spending countries on health care, such as the United States expected that timely biosimilar drug entry will help contain health expenditure significantly. However, the article published in the Fierce Pharma on August 29, 2019, raises an alarm, but with a hope for the future. It says: “It’s no secret biosimilars haven’t made a big dent in U.S. drug spending. Some experts have even said it’s time to give up on copycat biologic.”

This hope gets resonated with what, ‘the former US-FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb argues’. He feels, ‘It’s too soon for that’, while ‘calling on Congress to bolster the budding market.’ However, in my personal view, this will remain a difficult proposition to implement, as biologic drug players will continue using their relatively new, but powerful weapon of filing a number of complex ‘secondary patents.’ These will help extend the market exclusivity period of their respective brands, much beyond the original patent grant period, unless a counter legal measures are taken by the lawmakers of various countries, including the United States. But, India is an exception in this regard.

Indian patent law doesn’t encourage ‘secondary patents’:

The good news is, Indian Patent Act 2005, doesn’t encourage ‘secondary patent.’ This is because, section 3 (d) of the Indian Patent Act 2005 limits grant of ‘secondary pharmaceutical patents.’ An interesting study reported on February 08, 2018, discussed about 1,700 rejections for pharma patents at the IPO spanning over the last decade. But, there is a huge scope for improvement in this area.

Which is why, the not so good news is under-utilization of the same section 3.d by the Indian Patent Office (IPO), as are being voiced in many reports. One such paper of April 25, 2018 highlighted,72 per cent of pharma patent grants are secondary patents. These were granted for marginal improvements over previously known drugs for which primary patents exist. That said, despite such reported lapses, blocking of some crucial secondary patent grant has benefited a large number of patient population of India.

Blocking secondary patent grant has helped India immensely:

While US recognizes secondary patents, blocking secondary patent grant, especially for biologic drugs has helped Indian patients immensely, with expanded access to those medicines. This was also captured in the above study. Besides the classic case of Novartis losing its secondary patent challenge for Glivec in the Supreme Court of India in 2013, several other examples of secondary patent rejection are also available. This includes, among others, Glivec of Novartis and the world’s top selling drug for several years – Humira of AbbVie.Against a month’s therapy cost of ₹1,6o, ooo for Glivec in the US, its Indian biosimilar version costs for the same period ₹11,100. Similarly, while the treatment cost with Humira in the US is ₹85,000, the same with its biosimilar version in India is ₹ 13,500, as the above study finds.

Conclusion:

The core purpose of drug innovation, as widely touted by the R&D-based drug companies, is meeting the unmet needs of patients in the battles against diseases. Thus, drug innovation of this genre must not just be encouraged, but also be adequately protected and rewarded by granting product monopoly for a 20-year period from the date of the original patent grant. Curiously, piggybacking on this basic spirit behind the drug patent grant, pharma lobby groups are now vocal on their demand for giving similar treatment to secondary patents on various molecules. The tone of demand gets shriller when it comes to section 3. d of the Indian Patents Act, which doesn’t allow such ‘evergreening’ through secondary patents.

Thus, the key question that surfaces, while the original patent grant for innovative drugs help meeting unmet needs of some patients, whose unmet needs would a secondary patent grant meet, except making the concerned company richer? Further, for highly expensive biologic drugs, delayed market entry of cheaper biosimilars in that process, would deny their expanded access – failing to meet the unmet needs of scores of others.

Hopefully, India won’t give in to pressure of multinational pharma lobby groups, channeled through various powerful overseas government entities. At the same time, I hope, the government in power at the Eldorado of the pharma industry, will consider giving a fair chance of market entry to cheaper biosimilars, including those from India, to also grow their business globally, but in a win-win way.

The key objective of all stakeholders involved in this process, should be to uphold the basic spirit behind drug patent grant. It may even call for challenging the core intent behind secondary patent applications, the world over, that deny quicker market entry for cheaper biosimilars, sans heavy litigation expenses. This will help expand access to cheaper biologic medicines to all those who can’t afford those, otherwise.

By: Tapan J. Ray

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

 

 

 

 

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