On 18 January, the FTC announced that Mallinckrodt ARD Inc. (formerly Questcor Pharmaceuticals, Inc.) and its parent company have agreed to pay $100 million to settle FTC charges that they violated antitrust laws when Questcor acquired the rights to a drug that threatened its monopoly in the U.S. market for adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) drugs. The announcement was made concurrently with the release of the FTC's complaint.

Antitrust (as opposed to merger) cases about acquisitions of competing technology are not an everyday occurrence. However, this complaint has something of the flavour of the EU Commission’s Tetra Pak 1 decision. In that case, the EU Commission objected to Tetra Pak’s acquisition (through a merger) of exclusive rights to what was at the time the only viable competing technology to Tetra Pak’s dominant aseptic packaging system. The Commission (and subsequently the EU courts) held that this would prevent competitors from entering the market and therefore amounted to an abuse of a dominant position.

The FTC’s Mallinckrodt complaint alleges that while benefitting from an existing monopoly over the only U.S. ACTH drug, Acthar, Questcor illegally acquired the U.S. rights to develop a competing drug, Synacthen (a synthetic ACTH drug which is pharmacologically very similar to Acthar). This acquisition stifled competition by preventing any other company from using the Synacthen assets to develop a synthetic ACTH drug, preserving Questcor’s monopoly and allowing it to maintain extremely high prices for Acthar.

To judge by the FTC’s complaint, the case appears to contain some pretty stark facts which may have contributed to the immediate settlement of the proceedings by Mallinckrodt. Those facts also bring the case squarely into line with the US and EU competition regulators’ current concern over excessive pricing in pharma.

First up is the finding that Questcor had a 100% share of the U.S. ACTH market and that it took advantage of that monopoly to repeatedly raise the prices of Acthar from $40 a vial in 2001 to more than $34,000 per vial today – an 85,000% increase. The complaint details that in August 2007 Questcor increased the price of Acthar more than 1,300% overnight from $1,650 to $23,269 per vial and that it has taken significant and profitable increases on eight occasions since 2011 pushing the price up another 46% to its current $34,034 per vial. Acthar is a speciality drug used to treat infantile spasms, a rare seizure disorder affecting infants, as well as being a drug of last resort (owing to its cost) for a variety of other serious medical conditions. According to the FTC, Acthar treatment for an infant with infantile spasms can cost more than $100,000. In Europe, Canada and other parts of the world doctors treat these conditions with Synacthen which is available at a fraction of the price of Acthar in the U.S. (Synacthen is not available in the U.S. as it does not have FDA approval.) The FTC relies on the supra-competitive prices charged in the U.S. for Acthar as evidence of Questcor’s monopoly power as well as its 100% market share and the existence of substantial barriers to entry.

It is also part of the FTC’s case that Questcor disrupted the bidding process for Synacthen when the rights came up for acquisition. According to the complaint, Questcor first sought to acquire Synacthen in 2009, and continued to monitor the competitive threat posed by Synacthen thereafter. When the U.S. rights to Synacthen were eventually marketed in 2011, dozens of companies expressed an interest in acquiring them with three firms proceeding through several rounds of detailed negotiations. All three firms planned to commercialise Synacthen and to use it to compete directly with Acthar including by pricing Synacthen well below Acthar. In October 2012, Questcor submitted an offer for Synacthen and subsequently acquired the rights to Synacthen for the U.S. and thirty-five other countries and did not subsequently bring the product to market in the US.

In addition to the $100 million payout, the proposed court order requires that Questcor grant a licence to develop Synacthen to treat infantile spasms and nephrotic syndrome to a licensee approved by the FTC, a pretty far-reaching remedy.

This case is the latest in a string of cases on both sides of the Atlantic relating to escalating pharma prices (as discussed in our previous blog posts here and here). While companies retain significant scope to price products as they see fit, it reaffirms that pharma companies should be wary of implementing very significant price increases in the absence of good objective reasons for doing so. This is particularly so where the increase is facilitated by commercial strategies such as acquiring IP rights to existing/potentially competitive products. In the EU, it is also worth remembering that – as established by Tetra Pak I (on appeal to the General Court) – an agreement which falls within a block exemption can at the same time constitute an infringement of Article 102. So companies and their advisors should remember to wear Article 101 and 102 hats when reviewing agreements.