Monday, December 28, 2009

Pfizer-Unilab row

During the Oversight Committee meeting on cheaper medicines law two weeks ago, the Pfizer-Unilab row over Atorvastatin was said to have been raised by some legislators. Pfizer owns the brand “Lipitor” while Unilab started selling last month its generic version, “Avamax”, said to be of similar molecule but 30% much cheaper than Lipitor.

The two corporations are slugging it out in the courts. The biggest pharma company in the world but only 3rd biggest in the Philippines (Pfizer) vs. the biggest pharma company in the Philippines (United Laboratories), with sales perhaps 4x that of the former.

Mercury Drugstore does not sell yet the Avamax. Some legislators, and many in the public and media, were questioning why Mercury is “depriving” the public of the cheaper generic version since there is no decision by the court yet.

I think the Pfizer-Unilab row in this case is a a legal and technical issue, not political. Is atorvastatin calcium crystalline the same as atorvastatin calcium amorphous molecule? That’s among the technical issues that I know.

If I am the drugstore, there is a temptation to sell also the cheaper but supposedly “equally effective” medicine. But since there is a legal dispute at the moment, I’d rather not sell that. Why?

Here’s one analogy. You’re a big real estate dealer. You know a piece of land – good location, cheap – but there’s a legal dispute over its ownership. Would you sell that land and at the same time protect your corporate image as seller of “clean” and non-contested real properties?
Most likely No.

Similar case here. While land is physical property, patent is intellectual (or non-tangible) property. And there is a legal dispute over ownership of the patent.

Let the courts decide over ownership of the Atorvastatin molecule. If Pfizer wins, that it still owns the patent to Atorvastatin calcium, then no harm to Mercury Drugstore. If Unilab wins, that Pfizer no longer owns that patent, still no harm to Mercury. If Mercury will sell Avamax and Pfizer later wins, then Mercury will be in trouble too.

I discovered a blog entry on this subject, "Dr. Arroyo and the law of intended consequences",

The paper referred to Unilab's action as:

"It appears that the business model for Pharma companies in developing nations is violate the law, copy the drug, steal the market share, and if necessary, settle in court since the future profits from capturing the generics market share sooner rather than later far outweighs legal ramifications. And President Gloria consolidates another political victory for the local under-dog.

Innovation be damned. The Law be damned.

Tej Deol, M.D."

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