Feb 2023: Patents and Drug Pricing Make Front-Page News

27 Feb 2023

Right now, the focus on how drugmakers manipulate the patent system is surging. In just the first two months of this year, the USPTO and FDA held a public listening session on “promot[ing] greater access to medicines for American families”, the New York Times put AbbVie’s overpatenting of Humira on the front page (above-the-fold), and veteran Senators and Congressmembers called for action against Merck and its patent monopoly.

All this scrutiny on the systemic abuse of the patent system couldn’t come at a more important time. In the next decade, the patent protections on seven of the 10 top selling drugs in the U.S. are set to expire. Every single day of added protection on these blockbusters is worth millions, so you can be sure that drugmakers are currently using every trick in the book to strengthen their patenting schemes and further delay competition.

The moment to stand up to that abuse is now. As my colleague David Mitchell and I wrote in TIME magazine, we have a huge opportunity to address patents’ role at the root of our drug pricing crisis. 2023 can be the year we take a big step to ensure that lifesaving drugs don’t cost Americans their life savings.


What we’re doing

As I mentioned above, David Mitchell and I authored an op-ed for TIME magazine breaking down how patent abuse is fueling the drug pricing crisis. We explain why Congress must stand up to drugmakers’ anti-competitive tactics and return the patent system to its original intent: an engine for breakthrough discoveries that benefit all Americans – not a vehicle to secure unprecedented profits.

Two major media outlets covered AbbVie’s manipulation of patents on its blockbuster drug Humira. The New York Times ran its front page story above-the-fold, citing our Drug Patent Book database and explaining the devastating impact AbbVie’s overpatenting has had on patients. A week later, The Wall Street Journal released a podcast on Humira and AbbVie’s patent gaming, a major shift given the outlet’s allegiance to market orthodoxy.

Citing our research, Senator Warren, Senator Sanders, Representative Porter, and Representative Jayapal wrote a letter to the USPTO urging the office to scrutinize Merck over the tactics it employs to extend patent protection on Keytruda. The legislators made a point to say that overpatenting is not just a Merck problem, but that their bad behavior is “part of a long-standing pattern of drug manufacturers’ abuse of the patent system.”

My Co-ED Priti was appointed as a Commissioner on the O’Neill-Lancet Commission on Racism, Structural Discrimination, and Global Health. Medicines access is a racial equity issue, and Priti is going to be doing the critical work of devising solutions to that structural inequality alongside leaders like Loyce Pace from the Biden Administration and Dr. Tlaleng Mofoken the UN Special Rapporteur on Health.

Relevant news rundown

Eight of the biggest drugmakers are fighting shareholder proposals that would ask them to share the details of their patenting strategies. In their response, Merck may have slipped up in saying that providing more transparency into its patenting strategy would “undermine the company’s core business model.” It’s a startling admission in that it shows:

  1. Drugmakers want the patent system to remain a black box they are free to manipulate without the public/lawmakers understanding what’s happening.
  2. Their patent estates are foundational to their price gouging.

Last month, The USPTO and FDA had its public listening session. I attended and provided comments alongside patient advocates, issue experts, and a handful of industry representatives. Seeing voices from impacted communities be able to relay their experience with the patent system directly to those in power was extremely heartenting. This is what democratic policymaking needs to look like going forward.

The popular HBO show Last Week Tonight recently ran a segment on the potential of psychedelic medicine and made sure to cover the potential issues that overpatenting present. Citing the excellent reporting of Shayla Love, host John Oliver used Compass Pathways – the current clubhouse leader in psychedelic patent abuse – as an example of how the patent system is being manipulated to block competition.

Something hopeful

Usually we try to pick one item for this section of the newsletter, but I’ll be honest in saying that the cumulative momentum of the last few months is making me hopeful. Legislators and major media outlets are calling out manipulative patent strategies, while patients and impacted communities are stepping up and participating in the policymaking process. Slowly but surely, bipartisan support for addressing the role of patents in high drug prices is coalescing.

That said, this is no time to rest on our laurels. We are reaching a tipping point and need to build on this momentum. In reading the New York Times’ coverage of Humira, I could not help but look forward and fear that we may soon be reading a near identical story about Keytruda, one that would shine light on the same patent tricks and feature the same devastating patient stories. We can’t be exposing this abuse after the damage has been done. Our work is to prevent these stories before they happen and I hope you’ll join us in making real and meaningful patent reform a reality.

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