Price fight over HIV drug

GlaxoSmithKline has filed a lawsuit against Abbott Laboratories, claiming that its 2003 decision to increase the price of its HIV drug Norvir by 400 per cent was anticompetitive. GSK is the latest in a growing list of claimants to sue its US competitor, including four US pharmacy chains and one pharmaceutical wholesaler.  

Norvir, an antiretroviral protease inhibitor, was originally prescribed as a stand-alone HIV drug, until clinical trials showed that it could be combined with other protease inhibitors to increase their potency by inhibiting an enzyme that breaks them down. 

Now, HIV patients are commonly prescribed an antiretroviral cocktail consisting of a protease inhibitor with a boosting agent such as Norvir. 

Abbott combines Norvir with its own protease inhibitor into a single drug, Kaletra. But GSK’s own anti-HIV protease inhibitor Lexiva is prescribed in combination with Norvir - and patients have to pay for each drug separately. The price increase has pushed up the cost of the combined therapy. 

According to GSK, this price increase has made Kaletra a much cheaper option for HIV treatment. ’This is not only anticompetitive, it restricts patient access,’ Claire Brough from GSK told Chemistry World. ’Kaletra might not be suitable for all patients, but when prescribing an HIV drug, a dramatic price difference between two therapies would be a consideration. Abbott is pricing other people out of the market.’  

Abbott described the lawsuit as ’frivolous’ and said that the price was a fair reflection of Norvir’s value. Scott Stoffel, a spokesperson for the company, said that combination with Norvir reduced the required dosage of Lexiva, making it a cheaper treatment option than Lexiva alone: ’This proves the value of the drug as a boosting agent.’ 
Victoria Gill

BP settles charges

UK energy firm BP has agreed to pay $373 million (£182 million) in fines to settle various US legal charges. The company will pay $50 million for the explosion at its Texas City refinery, which killed 15 people, and $20 million related to oil spills from Alaskan pipelines. The remaining $303 million settles accusations of manipulating the market to drive up the price of propane in 2004. 

GSK blocks US patent law change 

Pharmaceutical giant GlaxoSmithKline has temporarily blocked the US Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) from implementing new rules, which it fears could prevent innovators from obtaining adequate patent coverage on their inventions. The PTO’s changes were intended to streamline the patent application process, by putting limits on the number of times companies could file changes to existing patent applications (’continuations’), and on the number of claims they could make about an invention. Currently, both are unlimited. The PTO said the current rules will apply until ’further notice’; a final ruling could arrive before the end of the year. 

Pfizer takes a deep breath 

US pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer has handed over its commercial interest in inhaled insulin drug Exubera to Nektar Therapeutics, along with a $135 million one-off payment. Pfizer had announced on 18 October that it was scrapping the drug, developed jointly between the two companies, after it made just $12 million in sales while costing $775 million to produce and promote. Nektar has received the commercial rights after accusing Pfizer of failing to properly market the drug. The two companies are continuing to jointly develop a PEGylated human growth hormone therapy. 

Vaccine deal 

French pharmaceuticals firm Sanofi-Aventis has signed an exclusive deal with UK vaccine maker Acambis to develop and market its West Nile virus vaccine. Acambis, who receive an initial $10 million payment, will continue to develop the vaccine, currently in Phase II clinical trials. Depending on the vaccine’s eventual performance on the market, Acambis could earn another $70 million from the deal. 

Roche closes in on Ventana 

US diagnostics firm Ventana has agreed to allow Roche to study its books. The Swiss pharmaceutical company made a $3 billion hostile bid in June, after Ventana rebuffed Roche’s earlier offer of a friendly takeover. Prior to agreeing to open its books, Ventana had fought the hostile $75 per share offer, describing it as grossly inadequate.

ICI sale proceeds 

Akzo Nobel’s acquisition of ICI remains on track after shareholders of both companies voted to approve the deal in extraordinary general meetings, held on 5 November and 6 November, respectively. Certain Akzo shareholders had voiced disapproval of the £8 billion offer, but 79 per cent of shareholders voted in favour of the deal. 

Mining offer 

Anglo-Australian mining company Rio Tinto has rejected a $142 billion offer from rival firm BHP Billiton. BHP, the world’s largest mining company, said it plans to continue to seek discussions with Rio Tinto, itself the world’s third largest mining firm by market capitalisation. Analysts have suggested other firms will now bid for Rio Tinto, in a sector currently enjoying record commodity prices but facing growing extraction and shipping costs.  

ChemChina looks abroad 

Australian agrochemicals firm Nufarm will recommend to shareholders a Aus$3 billion (£1.34 billion) cash takeover offer from a consortium comprising state-owned China National Chemical Corporation (ChemChina) and private equity firms Blackstone and Fox Paine. The deal would value Nufarm at Aus$17.55 per share, 27 per cent above the closing share price on 30 October 2007, the day before ’significant takeover speculation’ emerged. The bid comes a month after Blackstone bought a 20 per cent stake in ChemChina subsidiary China National Bluestar. 

PetroChina becomes world’s first $1 trillion company

Oil and gas company PetroChina’s share price more than doubled on their first day of trading on the Shanghai market, as Chinese investors rushed to buy shares. Trading pushed the firm’s market value above $1 trillion (£480 billion), as PetroChina became the first company ever to break the trillion dollar barrier. Despite a capitalisation twice that of closest rival ExxonMobil, PetroChina posted first half profits barely half that of the US oil giant. Share prices dropped 30 per cent the following week. 

Dole, Dow lose pesticide case 

A jury in Los Angeles, US, has awarded $3.2 million, plus punitive damages, to six Nicaraguan banana workers who argued they had been left sterile by a pesticide made by Dow Chemical and used on Dole Food Company plantations in the 1970s. Six other workers’ claims were rejected, but the companies still face suits from thousands more workers from Costa Rica, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama over the banned pesticide, DBCP. 

Mixed news for Astra Zeneca 

Anglo-Swedish drug firm Astra Zeneca has received approval from the US Food and Drug Adminstration to market Crestor, its cholesterol-lowering drug, to treat clogging of the arteries. Crestor, which made $2 billion in 2006 sales, is the first statin-based cholesterol drug also to be approved to treat artery hardening. However, Canada’s Cobalt Pharmaceuticals claims to have discovered a loophole in Crestor patents - due to run until at least 2016 - that would allow it to market generic copies of the drug. 

Lilly heads to market 

Eli Lilly’s new anticlotting heart attack drug prasugrel has passed its latest clinical trial, outperforming current market leader Plavix in head-to-head tests - although the drug did increase the risk of major bleeding, potentially slowing its path to market. The news comes in the same week that outgoing Wyeth chief executive Bob Essner criticised head-to-head trials, claiming that by blocking new drugs following comparison with those already on the market, the US Food and Drug Administration was creating monopolies. 

Bayer drug pulled

German drug and chemicals giant Bayer has temporarily withdrawn Trasylol, its antibleeding drug intended for use in heart surgery, from the market. The worldwide withdrawal follows growing evidence that the drug appears to raise the risk of death. Bayer says it will reconsider the marketing suspension after assessing the final data from an ongoing Canadian trial. 

Drugs sales slow 

Industry analysts IMS Health have predicted US drug sales will grow by only 4 to 5 per cent in 2008, the lowest rate of growth since 1963. The slow-down is the result of blockbusters losing patent protection, a limited supply of new medicines appearing on the market, and tightened control from regulators such as the US FDA. 

A silver lining 

The FDA has approved for market a silver-lined breathing tube, made by medical devices firm C.R. Bard, for use with patients on ventilators. Silver’s antimicrobial properties reduce the risk of patients catching pneumonia from bacteria in tubing.  

Bigger batteries

Chemicals firms Evonik and BASF are joining to develop new lithium ion batteries, a project receiving €60 million (£42 million) in German government funding. Bosch, Volkswagen and Li-Tec will also be involved in the three-year project. 

Dow in Asia 

US chemicals giant Dow will make Thailand its Asian manufacturing base, according to a company spokesman. On 13 November the company agreed to buy the remaining shares of Pacific Plastics (Thailand) Limited, a joint venture between Dow, Siam Cement Group (SCG) and two other minority partners.  

Patent talks out of time

WHO-sponsored talks between health officials and the pharmaceutical industry, aimed at ensuring people in developing countries have access to affordable drugs, have ended without agreement. The group will meet again in April 2008.