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Drug firm’s legal action against government advisers is described as “intimidation”

BMJ 2010; 341 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c6527 (Published 17 November 2010) Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6527
  1. Ray Moynihan
  1. 1Byron Bay, Australia

The drug company AstraZeneca has launched legal action against an influential committee of independent advisers to the Australian government.

Documents lodged with a federal court show that the company has begun proceedings against 17 members of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee and the federal health minister.

Neither AstraZeneca nor the government will comment on the nature of the case against the powerful committee, which makes recommendations on which drugs attract subsidies—and the conditions attached to those subsidies—in Australia’s £4bn (€4.7bn; $6.4bn) publicly funded scheme.

However, court documents reveal that the case is related to the pricing of popular lipid lowering drugs, including AstraZeneca’s rosuvastatin (marketed as Crestor), which generated global sales last year of almost £2.8bn and sold close to £180m in Australia alone.

Although there are precedents, it is uncommon for drug companies to launch proceedings against the committee, and a leading drug expert has described the move as intimidation. “Taking legal action against individual committee members is an attempt at individual intimidation” said Ken Harvey, an adjunct senior lecturer in the School of Public Health at La Trobe University, Melbourne. “Members of this committee are acting in the government and community’s interest.”

Listed on stock exchanges in London, New York, and Stockholm, AstraZeneca employs more than 60 000 people and had sales last year of £20bn. Rosuvastatin is one of its top selling products.

The company is challenging the Australian committee’s decision to treat rosuvastatin as “interchangeable” with its competitor atorvastatin, a decision that is likely to cause a reduction in prices paid to AstraZeneca, as atorvastatin comes off patent earlier.

AstraZeneca claims that its drug is not interchangeable, but other independent bodies, including Australia’s Therapeutic Guidelines Group, regard the statins as generally being therapeutically equivalent and as equal first choices.

The amount that Australia spends on lipid lowering drugs is becoming a politically sensitive issue, as this class alone accounts for around 16% of total expenditure on the national scheme, a dramatically higher proportion than in some other countries.

Earlier this year a study published in the Medical Journal of Australia showed that Australia was paying far higher prices for statins than England was—in some cases more than four times as much (2010;192:633-6). The University of Sydney researchers estimated that Australia could have saved more than £1bn over five years if it had adopted English policies on generics and pricing. Looking forward, the researchers predicted that Australians could save over £5bn in the coming decade.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2010;341:c6527

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