The single question

When you come to think about it, most of the issues that are discussed on a daily basis in patent cases seem to always boil down to one single question: same or different?

Take novelty: is the claimed subject-matter the same as that of the prior art or is it different? Or take infringement: does the allegedly infringing product or process differ from the claims of the patent? The list continues with extension of subject-matter, priority, etc.

Nevertheless, we patent attorneys or lawyers do not get bored, because this multifaceted single question is in fact extremely complex and gets renewed all the time. The most perfect example is probably supplementary protection certificates (SPCs), an area of law in flux if there ever was one.

Spot the differences – a patent attorney’s favorite game.

Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. (MSD) is the owner of European patent No. EP 0720599. The patent is directed to the treatment and prevention of atherosclerosis and more particularly to a class of compounds called hydroxy substituted azetidinones, among which the molecule known as ezetimibe.

Ezetimibe is in fact explicitly recited in claim 8 of the patent.

Of note are also claims 9, 16 and 17, which are worded as follows:

9. A pharmaceutical composition for the treatment or prevention of atherosclerosis, or for the reduction of plasma cholesterol levels, comprising an effective amount of a compound as claimed in any one of claims 1 to 8, alone or in combination with a cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor, in a pharmaceutically acceptable carrier.

16. A pharmaceutical composition of any of claims 9, 12 or 15 wherein the cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor is selected from the group consisting of HMG CoA reductase inhibitors, squalene synthesis inhibitors and squalene epoxidase inhibitors.

17. A pharmaceutical composition of claim 16 wherein the cholesterol biosynthesis inhibitor is selected from the group consisting of lovastatin, pravastatin, fluvastatin, simvastatin, Cl-981, DMP-565, L-659,699, squalestatin 1 and NB-55 598.

Two SPCs were successively granted by the French patent office (INPI) based on this European patent, namely:

  • First, SPC No. 03C0028, for a medicament comprising ezetimibe as an active, based on a marketing authorization (MA) for the drug Ezetrol®.
  • Second, SPC No. 05C0040, for a medicament comprising a combination of the active compounds ezetimibe and simvastatine, based on an MA for the drug Inegy®.

The European patent expired in 2014. The first (mono) SPC expired on April 17, 2018. The term of the second (combo) SPC is April 2, 2019.

In August 2017, the generic drug company Biogaran obtained an MA for a combination of ezetimibe and simvastatine and began preparing for the launch of this generic version of Inegy®.

In December 2017, Biogaran filed a nullity action against the combo SPC in front of the Paris Tribunal de grande instance (TGI). In February 2018, the U.S. MSD company and its French subsidiary initiated urgency proceedings and requested an injunction against Biogaran in view of an imminent infringement threat.

On April 5, 2018, an order was issued per which MSD’s request for injunction was denied. An appeal was filed, and the Paris Cour d’appel dismissed MSD’s appeal on June 26, 2018.

French legal proceedings are, as a general rule, not extremely quick. But sometimes they can be, as the present case shows. In fact, I did not even have time to become aware of and report on the first instance order, before the appeal ruling came out. Well, the fact that this blog has been somewhat slow in the past few months does not help, I will grant you that.

The reason why the President of the Paris TGI denied MSD’s request in the order of April 2018 is that the combo SPC was considered as invalid. This was confirmed on appeal.

Before delving into the details of the ruling, we need to go back, as always, to article 3 of the SPC regulation (officially known as Regulation (EC) No. 469/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council):

A certificate shall be granted if, in the Member State in which the application referred to in Article 7 is submitted and at the date of that application:
(a) the product is protected by a basic patent in force;
(b) a valid authorisation to place the product on the market as a medicinal product has been granted in accordance with Directive 2001/83/EC or Directive 2001/82/EC, as appropriate;
(c) the product has not already been the subject of a certificate;
(d) the authorisation referred to in point (b) is the first authorisation to place the product on the market as a medicinal product. 

Biogaran contended that the combo SPC was invalid for non-compliance with articles 3(a), 3(c) and 3(d). Their position was that:

  • regarding article 3(a), simvastatine is not claimed “as such” in the EP’599 patent, but merely as a substance known from the prior art, which can be used together with ezetimibe, which is claimed “as such“;
  • regarding article 3(c), an SPC had already been granted for the product at stake (namely the mono SPC), because the combination of the drug Ezetrol® with a statine such as simvastatine was already contemplated notably in the summary of product characteristics (SmPC) for this drug; and
  • regarding article 3(d), the MA for Inegy® was not the first MA for the product at stake, for the same reasons.

Interestingly, two further SPC applications similar to the granted combo SPC, namely for the combination of ezetimibe with atorvastatine, and of ezetimibe with rosuvastatine, were rejected by the INPI in February 2018.

In their ruling, the appeal judges made extensive reference to the Actavis judgment of the CJEU, C-443/12.

According to this ruling:

[…] where, on the basis of a patent protecting an innovative active ingredient and a marketing authorisation for a medicinal product containing that ingredient as the single active ingredient, the holder of that patent has already obtained a supplementary protection certificate for that active ingredient entitling him to oppose the use of that active ingredient, either alone or in combination with other active ingredients, Article 3(c) of Regulation (EC) No 469/2009 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 6 May 2009 concerning the supplementary protection certificate for medicinal products must be interpreted as precluding that patent holder from obtaining – on the basis of that same patent but a subsequent marketing authorisation for a different medicinal product containing that active ingredient in conjunction with another active ingredient which is not protected as such by the patent – a second supplementary protection certificate relating to that combination of active ingredients.

The facts in Actavis were somewhat different from those of the present case. In Actavis, the patent at stake protected irbesartan and a first MA had been obtained for the mono drug. Then, a second MA was obtained for a combo drug comprising irbesartan and a diuretic, hydrochlorothyiazide (HCTZ). But HCTZ was not specifically named in the patent, whereas in the present case simvastatine is expressly designated in claim 17 of the patent.

That said, this different circumstance does not appear to be essential in view of the broad exclusionary language used in the order of Actavis. The Cour d’appel therefore directly applied Actavis as follows:

[…] MSD, based on the one hand on the EP’599 patent protecting the new active ezetimibe, and on the other hand of the MA […] for Ezetrol® containing ezitimibe as a single active compound, obtained […] SPC ‘028, making it possible to object to the use of said active, either alone or in combination with other actives.
MSD, based on the same patent but on a later MA […] for a different drug Inegy® containing the active ezetimibe in combination with another active, simvastatine, which is not, as such, protected by said patent, requested a second SPC on this combination of actives.
It should be added that the reasons of judgment C-443/12 specify that it is not allowable for the proprietor of a basic patent in force to obtain a new SPC […] every time it markets […] a drug containing, on the one hand, the active protected as such in its basic patent and constituting  […] the core inventive advance of this patent, and on the other hand, another active, which is not protected as such by said patent. 
It is not challenged in this case that simvastatine, which is an active of the category of statines or “HMG CoA reductase inhibitors” is not protected as such by this patent, nor in fact by another patent. 

As a result, the combo SPC was held invalid under article 3(c).

MSD’s defense was that there were two inventions in the basic patent. The first invention was a new class of compounds including ezetimibe. The second invention was the use of ezetimibe with statines.

The court replied that only ezetimibe is a novel active compound. The court also noted that, based on the description of the patent, the combination of compounds did not involve an inventive step (or should this be “inventive advance”? the French expression “activité inventive” can be used for both terms). Although MSD filed an expert declaration to support such inventive step, the court held that such declaration could not cure the lack of inventive step based on the patent itself.

The court also agreed with Biogaran’s auxiliary argument per which, assuming that the mono and combo drugs were considered as different products, the SPC would still be invalid, under article 3(d) this time, because the MA for Inegy® would not be the first MA for the product, because the SmPC for this drug mentioned the association with statine compounds, and in particular simvastatine.

On a procedural standpoint, the outcome of the judgment is thus that the rejection of MSD’s request for injunction is confirmed. The nullity action on the merits is still pending, although of course we now have a good indication of how this is likely to turn out.

Going back to the central question asked at the beginning of this post, “same or different?“, is a drug containing ezetimibe together with a statine compound “the same” as a drug containing ezetimibe as the single active, for the purpose of SPC law? 

The answer appears to be much more complex than the question.

As a Post Script to this report, Biogaran’s invalidity argument based on article 3(a) was not really discussed in the appeal judgment. However, it is notable that a new CJEU ruling has been issued in this connection, namely C-121/17. Since it has already been reported on many blogs (see e.g. here), I will not go over it in detail, but I just wanted to mention it, as Lionel Vial had previously reported on the opinion of the Advocate General in this case on this blog.


CASE REFERENCE: Cour d’appel de Paris, pôle 5 chambre 1, June 26, 2018, Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp. & MSD France v. Biogaran, RG No. 18/52397.