No gift from Santen for SPC holders this year

Why on earth has Patent my French! not reported yet on Santen, I am sure dozens of readers have silently but reproachfully wondered.

After all, SPCs are a frequent topic on this blog, and it is not every day that a CJEU ruling shatters previously established practice. And based on a French referral, no less. Well, you may probably blame it on summertime torpor.

Luckily, Matthieu Dhenne does not mind heatwaves and has kindly sent me a contribution, which I am happy to reproduce below.

Santen owns European patent No. EP 057959306 for an ophthalmological emulsion in which cyclosporin is an active ingredient, plus a marketing authorization (“MA”) for the drug IKERVIS®, an eye drops emulsion containing said cyclosporin, which is intended for the treatment of severe keratitis in adult patients.

On the basis of these patent and MA, Santen filed an application with the INPI for a supplementary protection certificate (“SPC”) for a product entitled “cyclosporin for the treatment of keratitis“. The Director General of the INPI rejected this application, considering that the marketing authorisation on which it was based was not the first for cyclosporin, since another authorisation had already been previously issued for a SANDIMMUN® drug, which included this same active ingredient, in the context of post-graft medication. Faced with the applicant’s appeal against this rejection, the Paris Cour d’appel referred two questions to the CJEU, with a view to determining, in substance, whether an SPC could be granted for a new therapeutic application of a known drug.

The European High Court firstly considered that the definition of the notion of “product” in Article 1 b) of Regulation (EU) No. 469/2009 on SPCs is independent of the approved therapeutic application of said product, which therefore implies that it has a therapeutic effect of its own.

The Court concluded, secondly, that this strict interpretation of the concept of product implies that Article 3(d) of the Regulation must be understood as relating to the first marketing authorisation of any medicinal product incorporating the active ingredient.

The Santen judgment is thus an important turnaround.

As a reminder, an SPC extends the term of protection of a product that is a component of a medicine and is covered by a patent. Its purpose is to compensate for the length of time it takes to obtain a marketing authorization for a drug, because it is particularly significant. The central question raised in the Santen case was therefore whether this certificate only rewards the development of new active substances or whether it also rewards the search for new treatments for known substances.

Initially, the Court of Justice had consistently adopted a literal interpretation of the texts by excluding the grant of SPCs for new therapeutic applications (C-31/03, Pharmacia Italia; C-431/04, MIT; C-202/05, Yissum). However, it reversed its position with its judgment in the Neurim case on 19 July 2012 (C-130/11). It then held that an SPC could be granted despite an earlier marketing authorisation for the same active ingredient, so that the mere existence of a marketing authorisation for the veterinary medicinal product did not prevent an SPC from being granted for a different application of the same product, provided that the said application fell within the scope of protection of the basic patent. However, the Court later restricted the scope of this reversal in Abraxis (C-443/17), by rejecting the protection of new formulations of a known product.

Nevertheless, the interpretation of the Neurim case law has given rise to considerable debate as to whether its application was limited to the case at hand, i.e. from veterinary use to human use or vice versa, or whether Neurim meant that any new therapeutic application was protectable by a SPC. National patent offices took different positions on this question.

In Santen, the Court of Justice unambiguously put an end to SPCs for second therapeutic applications and thus to the legal uncertainty surrounding them.

SPC case law is like a Moebius strip: sometimes, a long and winding path may bring you back to where you started from.

The judgment is thus part of a trend towards a literal reading of Regulation (EU) No 469/2009, in particular after the Abraxis case mentioned above, and should be reaffirmed in the pending Novartis case (C-354/19), which relates to the question whether a new SPC can be granted to the holder of a first SPC concerning the same active ingredient.

This ultimately brings us back to the idea, once developed by Michel de Haas in connection with patents, that a new treatment is not protectable because it was already inherent in the first product.

While legal certainty undoubtedly remains the first social value to be attained, it should not be overlooked that it is achieved here at the cost of a significant reduction in the incentive for research in the pharmaceutical sector. However, despite the insecurity, many SPCs have been granted and exploited in accordance with previous case law and some companies have been built based on the economic model of re-using known drugs (developers of personalized drugs or orphan drugs, or companies using data and artificial intelligence to identify new therapeutic uses, for example). Therefore, although it increases legal certainty, this judgment is nonetheless a loss for many players in the sector, who will ultimately no longer have the incentive to invest in the development of new applications for known medicines.

But perhaps this restrictive approach of the CJEU should be seen as an appeal to the Commission since, as the Advocate General pointed out in Santen, it is for the European Union legislator alone, and not the Court, to decide to extend the scope of protection of SPCs?

Thank you Matthieu for this nice summary. There is no doubt that this ruling must have disappointed a number of stakeholders.

Now, on a purely legal standpoint, I am struck by the unusual clarity of the ruling.

CJEU judgments on SPCs have had this tendency to form an undecipherable patchwork of rules. When a new one is issued, it is generally not an easy task to figure out whether it reverses or qualifies a previous one, or whether it should be interpreted as being limited in scope to very specific facts. This was in particular the problem with Neurim, which was difficult to reconcile with Yissum et al.

Contrast this with the quasi-crystal-clear order in Santen:

[…] A marketing authorisation cannot be considered to be the first marketing authorisation, […] where it covers a new therapeutic application of an active ingredient, or of a combination of active ingredients, and that active ingredient or combination has already been the subject of a marketing authorisation for a different therapeutic application.

Even more remarkable is the way the court explicitly repelled its previous ruling at paragraph 53:

It follows that, contrary to what the Court held in paragraph 27 of the judgment in Neurim, to define the concept of ‘first [MA for the product] as a medicinal product’ for the purpose of Article 3(d) of Regulation No 469/2009, there is no need to take into account the limits of the protection of the basic patent.

This got me thinking though.

Now that we know for a fact that the CJEU sometimes sets aside rules that it previously laid out itself, isn’t this an incentive for litigants to try to challenge other seemingly well-established rules?

Neurim was issued only eight years ago, and it has now already gone the way of the dodo, so why not try this approach again in the future? In other words, is it at least conceivable that an unusually clear ruling may have ultimately increased overall legal uncertainty?

Let’s hope that the next SPC regulation will be intrinsically clearer and leave less room for diverging interpretations.

CASE REFERENCE: CJEU, July 9, 2020, C-673/18, Santen SAS v. Directeur général de la propriété industrielle

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