The Commission confirmed the surprise inspections on 6 October saying it has reason to believe that the provisions of the EC Treaty prohibiting restrictive business practices and/or the abuse of a dominant market position may have been infringed.
Surprise inspections are a preliminary step in the investigation of suspected anticompetitive practices. The last such investigation ended in November 2008 after eleven months. At its conclusion the antitrust department said it had uncovered suspected anti-competitive practices, including making multiple patent applications for the same drug, frivolous litigation against generic drug companies and deals with these companies to keep their products off the market – all with the aim of delaying or blocking market entry of the cheaper drugs.
That time the Commission pulled no punches in its report, reprinting several of the documents seized in dawn raids on the pharmaceutical companies in January.
In one example: “We identify options to obtain or acquire patents for the sole purpose of limiting the freedom of operation of our competitors... Rights covering competitive alternatives are maintained in major markets until risk of competing products appearing is minimal.”
The Commission calculated then that the suspected abuses it identified amounted to lost savings of about €3 billion for the health systems during 2000 to 2007 for the chosen sample of medicines facing patent expiry in 17 Member States. “The inquiry has told us what is wrong with the sector, and now it is time to act,” said Competition Commissioner Neelie Kroes when the final report was adopted in July.
This week the Commission said the fact it had carried out an inspection does not mean that the companies are guilty of anti-competitive behaviour, nor does it prejudge the outcome of the investigation itself. There is no fixed deadline to complete the inquiries.