Novartis and Johnson & Johnson to deprive Europeans of their right to Health

Novartis-Logo (1)

It was the last day of January that the European Commission decided to send a formal complaint against two pharmaceutical giants, Johnson and Johnson and Novartis, over an illegal secret deal that made European cancer patients suffer while it brought huge profits to the American and Swiss multinational accordingly.

After the meticulous research of DG Competition, that as usually, took around 10 years to bear fruit, it has been uncovered that the two of the three biggest Pharmaceutical companies of the world according to Forbes, were having a small party in Netherlands between 2005 and 2006 at the expense of the Dutch cancer patient. According to DG Comp, what was happening back then is that the Dutch branch of Johnson & Johnson in the Netherlands, Janssen-Cilag, had in its payroll for one year and a half a competitive pharmaceutical company specialized in generics called Sandoz. The latter is a proper known unit of the Swiss company Novartis. So, basically, Johnson and Johnson were paying to Novartis a huge amount of money for 17 months. Isn’t that weird? Competitor companies are supposed to have endless board meetings on how to steal money from each other and not sharing bribes. Was 2005 the year that the management of the two powerful companies lost their minds due to burnout?

The Pay for Delay Deal

Well, think again! These people knew very well what they were doing. We are talking here about the anticompetitive bad practice of Pharmaceuticals called “Pay for Delay” where one brand name is bribing the generic drug competitor in order to delay the release of the cheaper generic drug in the market. In our case the generic drug that was deliberately and illegally delayed to launch in the Dutch market is Fentanyl and it is a drug that is mainly used by cancer patients to relieve pain. In a nutshell, these two companies deprived the Dutch cancer patients from the right to be able to buy a much cheaper drug, so that they can save millions of Euros by preventing a market share loss that a cheaper substitute product in the market would bring.

On the antitrust statement of DG Competition on the 31st of January, Mr. Almunia, the EU Competition Commissioner, said: “If our preliminary conclusions are confirmed, the Dutch subsidiaries of Johnson & Johnson and Novartis entered into a so-called “co-promotion” agreement to avoid competing against each other, depriving users of fentanyl in the Netherlands from access to a cheaper pain killer,”… “The commission is determined to fight undue delays in the market entry of generic medicines so that European citizens have access to affordable health care”. The Basque EU Commissioner says it here very well, but he certainly cannot say anything to the Dutch patients that were not given the alternative of cheap Fentanyl for 17 monhts! Can he?

DG Comp is doing Fundraising

Unfortunately, it seems that this antitrust statement can serve only in two things: a) make impression and b) make the Commission richer. If the Commission wins this battle with the pharmaceutical dinosaurs, which we all hope it will, the only benefit will be a few billion Euros for DG Comp. And of course we live in crisis and Mr. Almunia needs to play the role of the Fundraiser but in the end of the day this will not solve the Pay for Delay syndrome that is expanding like a plague in Europe and is menacing significantly public health. I mean, what is 7 billion euros for Johnson and Johnson to pay as fine compared to the millions or billions that the company has probably saved by exercising this anticompetitive covert technique? And of course, we are talking here about one case that goes back 10 years ago and was uncovered now. Who knows how many other similar incidents we had or we have at this moment in Europe happening at the expense of the European citizen, which will never see the light of publicity? Hence, the culminant question here is: What next? How can the European citizen be sure that this kind of corporate bribing will not be repeated in the future?

The European Parliament had an idea

Only a week after the antitrust statement, a new draft law was voted on the 6th of February in the European Parliament that seems relevant to the topic of this story. The basic concept behind that is that European patients should be able to buy cheaper generic medicines. This is an excellent concept. The European Sting and all Europeans welcome this spirit from the European law makers without a doubt. However, the European Parliament only voted in favour of some new deadlines and transparency standards on pricing and reimbursement of generic medicines. As usually, all this will be addressed to the 27 member states.

Of course, this is something that Europe needed to have anyway, because the rules that are now in action and describe these procedures are almost 25 years old (1989). It is true that the procedures were poorly defined and slow while, as Mrs. Antoniya Parvanova, rapporteur from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE), said, sometimes it took a country up to 700 days to make decisions on pricing and reimbursement of medicines. However, why was this matter brought up in the European Parliament now and not before? Is it to take the next step after Mr. Almunia’s antitrust statement?

I am afraid not. The reasons are twofold:

a)      This vote apparently is not going to stop Pharmaceuticals to pay for delay

b)      The draft law was voted on the 6th of February, when on the 4th was the World Cancer Day. The period that the draft law was voted was a period with numerous events aiming at cancer awareness all around the world. Is it a coincidence that the flash addicted European Parliament voted for this in the beginning of February and not in March?

Overall the draft law is a good reform addressed to member states to improve the European health system as a whole but let’s be honest here. Big Pharmaceuticals will be still free out there to sign golden deals under the table with generic competitors, in order to delay the launch of their product so that they keep the prices and profits high for themselves. Who will touch these people? Or better who can touch these people? Is a few billion fine enough to make them stop?

I guess not. The only cure from this cancer is that the patient, the European citizen, is aware of what exactly is happening behind her back and I hope that with this story the Sting has contributed to that.

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