EU officials question 'unjustified' cancer drug pricing from Aspen

Upon receiving information that Aspen Pharmacare has taken steep price increases on lifesaving cancer meds in Europe and threatened to pull its products in order to get the hikes through, EU antitrust regulators have pledged to take a close look at the South African drugmaker’s business practices.

Europe’s competition authority opened an investigation into Aspen on Monday, seeking to learn whether the company “abused a dominant market position in breach of EU antitrust rules,” according to a release. It noted this is the first time it has looked into excessive pricing in pharmaceuticals.

Aspen confirmed the probe and said while it can’t comment, the drug company “reaffirms its commitment to fair and open competition in markets in the European Union and around the world.”

“Aspen takes compliance with competition laws very seriously and will work constructively with the European Commission in its process,” the company said in a statement.

RELATED: U.K. authorities say Actavis broke competition law with 'excessive and unfair prices' on a generic

At issue is whether Aspen took "very significant and unjustified price increase of up to several hundred percent, so-called 'price gouging'," according to the European Commission. The group said it has info showing Aspen not only threatened, but in some cases, actually withdrew some of the medications from markets to get its price increases through.

While this is the EU's first action on rising drug prices, U.K. authorities have been busy lately scrutinizing the industry’s pricing.

Back in December, U.K. officials fined Pfizer a record $108 million over a 2,600% price hike on phenytoin sodium, sold under the brand name of Epanutin. Pfizer refuted the allegations and said it will appeal.

RELATED: U.K. watchdog smacks Pfizer with record fine, citing a 2,600% price hike

Weeks later, U.K. authorities went after Actavis for “excessive and unfair pricing” on hydrocortisone tablets, stating that the drugmaker raised prices 12,000% over eight years. Authorities are still looking over the evidence in that case.

European officials did get involved in a pharmaceutical antitrust investigation back in 2014, along with France and Italy. That case centered over whether Roche and Novartis attempted to push doctors to pricey Lucentis over a cheaper rival, Avastin. In that case, Italian authorities levied fines of more than $250 million. The drugmakers are appealing, according to PharmExec.

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The European Commission’s look into Aspen covers all countries in the European Economic Area agreement except Italy, according to a Monday press release. There, authorities already handed out fines worth €5 million to Aspen over cancer drug price hikes.