Poster Child for Gaming Pharmaceutical Regulations: Humira

NY Times 1/29/23): How a Drug Company Made $114 Billion by Gaming the U.S. Patent System “AbbVie for years delayed competition for its blockbuster drug Humira, at the expense of patients and taxpayers. The monopoly is about to end.”

This article details how AbbVie has perfected the use of patent protections to extend its monopoly over adalimumab; this has been to the detriment of many patients , employers and taxpayers who bear the additional costs. Key points:

  • In 2016, a blockbuster drug called Humira was poised to become a lot less valuable. The key patent on the best-selling anti-inflammatory medication, used to treat conditions like arthritis, was expiring at the end of the year…Through its savvy but legal exploitation of the U.S. patent system, Humira’s manufacturer, AbbVie, blocked competitors from entering the market.
  • Since the end of 2016, the drug’s list price has gone up 60 percent to over $80,000 a year, according to SSR Health, a research firm.
  • Patents are good for 20 years after an application is filed. Because they protect patent holders’ right to profit off their inventions, they are supposed to incentivize the expensive risk-taking that sometimes yields breakthrough innovations. But drug companies have turned patents into weapons to thwart competition. AbbVie and its affiliates have applied for 311 patents, of which 165 have been granted, related to Humira, according to the Initiative for Medicines, Access and Knowledge, which tracks drug patents. A vast majority were filed after Humira was on the market.
  • The article notes that one employer has been flying a patient receiving Humira to the Bahamas to pick up her medication.
  • AbbVie … will have a new way to make more money from the drug. Under the terms of the legal settlements… AbbVie will earn royalties from the knockoff products that it delayed.
  • In the longer run, though, AbbVie’s success with Humira may boomerang on the drug industry. Last year, the company’s tactics became a rallying cry for federal lawmakers as they successfully pushed for Medicare to have greater control over the price of widely used drugs that, like Humira, have been on the market for many years but still lack competition.

My take: It makes me mad when I read this article. First of all, there are a lot of patients harmed by this gaming. Second, it is outrageous that the cost of this expensive medication was raised 60% over the last 6 years (and going up 8% more in 2023). Third, I am disappointed to learn that AbbVie will still make money off biosimilars because I am looking forward to NOT using Humira because of these tactics. Lastly, I hope that this does prompt legislative/regulatory changes to limit this practice going forward.

Related article: USA Today (1/30/23) Why drugmakers have raised prices on nearly 1,000 drugs so far this year Average medication increase for 2023 is 5%. “Nearly half of new drugs cost $150 000 per year in 2020 and 2021. Fewer than 10% of new drugs launched at that price in 2008.”

Related blog posts: