EC launches pharma antitrust probe

Industry wags might say it's criminal that more new drugs aren't making it to market. But they wouldn't mean it literally--would they? Today, the European Commission's antitrust watchdogs raided some surprised drug makers, looking for evidence that industrial hijinks are keeping new products off the market and delaying cheaper generics.

Like many observers, the EC has noted that an average of 40 new molecules were launched per year between 1995 and 1999--but that number dropped to 28 between 2000 and 2004. Now, regulators want to look at the use of intellectual property rights, litigation, settlement agreements, and the like. To keep that confidential info from being destroyed before they could seize it, they conducted surprise inspections at the likes of Pfizer, GlaxoSmithKline, AstraZeneca, and Sanofi-Aventis.

Though this sort of "sector inquiry" doesn't necessarily result in antitrust prosecution, it can lead to large fines. At the least, this probe should prompt more debate over patent law and whether companies are abusing it to keep down competition.

- see the release from the EC and its FAQ
- read the responses from AZ and GSK
- here's MarketWatch's overview
- get details and analysis from The Wall Street Journal