A decade ago, the European Commission conducted a thorough sectoral inquiry into the European pharmaceutical sector that identified antitrust shortcomings impeding access to more affordable and innovative medicines and treatments. Concluding this inquiry by setting priority actions for the years to come, former Competition Commissioner Kroes called for “… more competition and less red tape …” (sic).
Since this statement, there has been intense enforcement activity in the sector not only by the European Commission itself, but also by the European Union Member States’ antitrust authorities.
In its report on “Competition enforcement in the pharmaceutical sector” issued on January 28, 2019, the European Commission takes stock of their actions in this space.
The past enforcement record (2009-2017): intense activity, hard stance towards pharmaceutical companies with the use of novel or less known theories of harm
Between 2009 and 2017, no less than 29 infringement decisions were issued by European antitrust authorities, leading to fines totaling over €1 billion, while the European Commission asked for structural remedies for 25% of the reportable mergers in the sector.
In total, European antitrust authorities investigated over a hundred cases during the 2009-2017 period. Their investigations related to a wide range of medicines and many of the actors involved in the pharmaceutical sector: manufacturers, wholesalers and retail distributors.
Applying Article 101 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU) (or its national equivalent), which prohibits anticompetitive agreements and cartels, European antitrust authorities condemned, for the first time, certain pay-for-delay agreements, whereby a generic company agrees to restrict or delay its independent entry onto the market in exchange for benefits transferred from the originator. They also condemned practices of collusion in tenders, price fixing, conduct aimed at excluding competitors or limiting their ability to compete, and other types of coordination between competitors.
Besides, European antitrust authorities found that the misuse of the regulatory framework, whereby a dominant company misleads public authorities and misuses the regulatory procedures, can infringe Article 102 TFEU (or its national equivalent). Similarly, disparagement and other practices curbing demand for generics were found to infringe Article 102 TFEU. Reviving the neglected notion of exploitative abuse, European antitrust authorities found that under certain circumstances, a dominant pharmaceutical firm may infringe Article 102 TFEU if it imposes unfair terms and conditions or excessive pricing. In these cases, the reward for innovation seemed to have weighed little in the balance against the alleged harm caused to patients.
19 of the 80 mergers reviewed by the Commission over the 2009-2017 period were subject to structural remedies, namely divestitures, offered by the merging firms. Antitrust concerns in those cases related to the risks of (i) price increases for some medicines in one or several Member States, (ii) depriving patients and national healthcare systems of some medicinal products, and (iii) diminishing innovation in relation to certain treatments developed at the EU or even global level.
All in all, the Commission takes a positive view: it considers that active competition enforcement throughout the European Union has fostered innovation, choice and affordability by intervening where companies, unilaterally or jointly, relax competitive pressures that force them to innovate further or prevent others from innovating or illegitimately exploiting their market power.
After this positive assessment, the question that finally arises is whether pharmaceutical companies remain in the spotlight in Europe and should expect the same level of attention from the European antitrust authorities.
The response is, fortunately or unfortunately (depending on the standpoint), yes, definitely.
The now numerous precedents and case law have undoubtedly helped the sector to put some order into the practices implemented in the past. However, the critical challenges facing pharmaceutical companies for years (succession of blockbusters, very high cost and remuneration of innovation, very lengthy development process, etc.) weaken them and may still lead them to adopt either defensive or aggressive strategies at risk from an antitrust perspective. The European Commission remains fully aware of such risk and ultimately recommends that: “Authorities … remain vigilant and pro-active in investigating potentially anti-competitive situations, including where new practices used by companies or new trends in the industry are concerned, such as the growing relevance of biosimilars.”
So, it is most likely not the end of the story …