Novartis drops the Kymriah patent that was opposed by Public Eye
Lausanne/Zurich, 16 December 2019
In a letter dated 29 November 2019, the proprietors of the contested patent on the cancer cell therapy Kymriah requested through their lawyer its revocation on the grounds that they no longer approved the text upon which it had been granted. Novartis is not the official holder but acquired the exclusive rights over this patent, and has therefore brought all its weight behind this decision. The revocation was confirmed by the European Patent Office (EPO) in Munich, of which Switzerland also depends, and follows the opposition filed last July by Public Eye and Médecins du Monde (Doctors of the World). Both NGOs had called for the revocation of this patent, as the claimed subject-matter lacks novelty. This unexpected move, which took place before the opposition procedure had really started, indirectly confirms the abusive nature of the patent and suggests the fear of Novartis for any dangerous precedent to be set. These same reasons must have prevailed for the unilateral withdrawal in September 2019 of an application for another patent on Kymriah containing similar claims.
It is the first time that an opposition initiated by NGOs has led to a European pharma patent being revoked. This represents an important step in the struggle against the abuse of intellectual property rights that threaten the financial sustainability of health systems, including in Switzerland. Patent monopolies enable an irresponsible pricing policy, as shown by the exorbitant amount set for this therapy in Switzerland: CHF 370 000 per injection. This victory does not end the monopoly of this treatment as Kymriah is still protected by other patents. It does nevertheless weaken the position of Novartis in view of future price revisions to be carried out by the Federal Office of Public Health (FOPH). The FOPH should demand a more reasonable price.
The revocation of this patent should also benefit the initiative of leading Swiss university hospitals to develop similar but considerably cheaper cancer therapies. Finally, this volte-face should question the validity of other patents on Kymriah, and encourage the EPO to strictly apply the patentability criteria before granting patents to health technologies. In 2018, expenditure on medicines in Switzerland covered by the mandatory health insurance scheme already represented 1 in every 4 CHF – almost 1 in 5 CHF for patented treatments alone.
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What is Kymriah?
Kymriah is not a medicine but a medical service that was essentially developed through university research and public funding. This new therapy of Novartis, through which white blood cells of the patient are genetically modified to recognise and attack cancer cells before being re-injected, is indicated against certain refractory or relapsing blood cancers. It was approved by Swissmedic in October 2018. Experts estimate that yearly some 100 people in Switzerland could benefit from Kymriah. However, this kind of procedure is likely to play an important role in treating other kinds of cancer in the near future, resulting in a rapidly rising number of cases requiring such expensive therapies.