Commission opens first investigation into excessive drug pricing

Vestager: "When the price of a drug suddenly goes up by several hundred percent, this is something the Commission may look at." [European Parliament]

The European Commission yesterday (15 May) announced that it has opened a formal investigation into Aspen Pharma’s pricing practices for cancer drugs.

In light of a deal reached amongst six southern EU member states (Malta, Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Spain, and Portugal) last week in Valletta, Malta, to cooperate “in full trust, loyalty, solidarity and transparency for better access to medicines”, the executive will investigate whether pharmaceutical company Aspen has abused a dominant market position in breach of EU antitrust rules.

Southern EU states present unified front in drug talks

Six southern member states have signed a common declaration, aiming to enhance their cooperation and jointly negotiate with the pharmaceutical industry on drug pricing.

Affordability and accessibility to medicines have also been a top priority for the EU Maltese Presidency, which is aiming to create a new landscape in the ailing healthcare systems.

Last October, the Italian anti-trust authority issued Aspen Pharma with a €5 million fine, accusing it of “blackmailing” the Italian medicines agency.

Aspen had threatened the agency with the cessation of supply for vital oncology medicines intended for patients in the Italian market, particularly children and the elderly, if they refused to increase the drugs’ price.

In a statement, Italy’s drugs’ agency stated that the pharma company – by virtue of being the only supplier of this type of anticancer drugs – abused its position in the market and the fine concerned “fixed unfair prices” which attained increases of up to 1,500%.

Italy’s pharma scandal heats up drugs pricing debate

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) has urged the European Commission to investigate pharma-industry “unethical” practices on drug pricing, after a scandal revealed last week in Italy.

The executive stressed in a statement that the investigation is a matter of priority and is related to concerns that Aspen Pharma has engaged in excessive pricing concerning five life-saving cancer medicines. The investigation will now examine if EU antitrust rules were breached.

EU competition policy chief Margrethe Vestager, commented, “When we get sick, we may depend on specific drugs to save or prolong our lives. Companies should be rewarded for producing these pharmaceuticals to ensure that they keep making them into the future”.

“But when the price of a drug suddenly goes up by several hundred percent, this is something the Commission may look at. More specifically, in this case, we will be assessing whether Aspen is breaking EU competition rules by charging excessive prices for a number of medicines,” she said.

EU consumers satisfied

The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), which had already sent since last year a letter to the Commission calling for an investigation in the case, expressed satisfaction with the executive’s move and emphasised it was “encouraging” that the case was granted an EU-wide angle.

“Consumers rely on drug companies to recover from illnesses and in many cases save their lives. Big pharma players should not abuse this dependence which is exactly what such price policies seem to do,” BEUC’s Director General Monique Goyens noted.

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