Patent expires on blockbuster Lipitor drug; generics on the way

The Takeaway

The 10 million Americans who take Lipitor to treat high cholesterol are about to get good news.

The 20 year patent on the blockbuster prescription drug expires Wednesday, creating an opening for other companies to manufacture cheaper, chemically identical generic versions. Two companies have products coming to market to entice the 3.5 million users of Lipitor to something cheaper. But Pfizer, the makers of Lipitor, which generates almost a fifth of its revenue from the drug, has its own plan for keeping patients on the name brand.

Harriet Washington, author of “Deadly Monopolies: The Shocking Corporate Takeover of Life Itself — And the Consequences for Your Health and Our Medical Future,” said the pharmaceutical industry has changed dramatically since Lipitor was first introduced. Back then, the companies were bringing hundreds of new drugs to market every year. Now, that number has dwindled to about 18.

“Not only are drug companies losing their profits as drugs go off patent, but there’s very little to replace it,” Washington said.

Washington said the biggest change is in the sort of drugs companies are researching. Rather than short-term therapies, the companies are looking for the next Lipitor: drugs that can be taken by a wide swath of the population, every day, indefinitely.

“Their goal is a drug that is going to maximize profits,” she said.

Michael Kleinrock, director of research development at the IMS Institute for Health Care Informatics, said patients and Pfizer both received huge benefits from Lipitor while it was on the market. And now, Pfizer’s trying to develop ways to convince its customers to stick with Lipitor, rather than switch to another company.

For the first six months, there will be one genric company making a competing drug, Kleinrock said, but by May of next year, there may be five, 10 or even 15 competitors with generic version of Lipitor on the market.

Washington said right now, the difference in price between Lipitor and the first generic, which is protected for six months, is only slight. But that gap should widen when more generic companies are able to bring products to market.

“Typically what happens is the price falls about 18 percent, but that’s usually after six months” Washington said. “To the consumers, they’re not going to see a difference in price right now.”

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