British watchdog cracks down on Pfizer for huge price hikes on epilepsy drug

Pfizer ($PFE) wouldn't win any popularity contests in the U.K. Last year, government officials lambasted its proposed takeover of AstraZeneca ($AZN), and it has drawn criticism for its hard line on generic Lyrica use. Now, Britain's competition watchdog is accusing the drugmaker of violating U.K. and European laws by jacking up costs for another epilepsy med.

The U.K.'s Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) said Pfizer and partner Flynn Pharma abused their hold on the market by charging "excessive and unfair" prices for phenytoin sodium capsules, raising costs by as much as 2,600%, Reuters reports. Pfizer used to market the drug directly under the brand name Epanutin, but sold those rights to Flynn in September 2012. Since then prices have surged, as Pfizer supplied Flynn at higher prices, and its partner hiked them even further, according to competition authorities.

The CMA says Pfizer sold phenytoin at 8 to 17 times its historic price to Flynn, which turned around and sold the med at 25 to 27 times more than Pfizer's previous prices. As a result, the U.K.'s National Health Service (NHS), which once spent around £2.3 million ($3.6 million) on phenytoin capsules each year, paid £40 million for the drug in 2014, Reuters reports.

"While businesses are generally free to set prices as they see fit, those that hold a dominant position have a special responsibility to ensure that their conduct does not impair genuine competition and that their prices are not excessive and unfair," said Ann Pope, the CMA's senior director of antitrust enforcement, as quoted by Reuters.

The prices the CMA is worried about are "very high" compared to the ones Pfizer used to charge, Pope added, potentially complicating access for "tens of thousands of patients" who take the med. More than 50,000 individuals in the U.K. use phenytoin sodium capsules to ward off or control seizures.

The CMA is giving both companies a chance to respond before making its final decision on whether they broke the law, Reuters reports. David Fakes, a director at London area-based Flynn, told the news outlet that the company would vigorously defend itself against the allegations. Flynn's pills are priced competitively with rivals, he said, including a tablet version of phenytoin.

Pfizer said supplying the drug to patients in the country is "of paramount importance" and was a large part of why it chose to sell the med to Flynn, according to a statement seen by the Shropshire Star. The company is "cooperating fully" with the CMA's ongoing investigation, it added.

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- get the Shropshire Star story

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