Pfizer is a big company. It has a market capitalization just over $183 billion, and a workforce of more than 100,000 persons around the world. Pfizer is also pretty aggressive.
Recently Pfizer sued the head of the drug regulatory agency in the Philippines, personally, asking for 1.4 million pesos in damages. Pfizer also sued another government official, the regulatory agency itself, and a government-owned trading company. Pfizer has also threatened Philippine news outlets, including television stations, with pull-outs of advertisements if they report on the dispute, and Pfizer has enlisted the US Department of State to pressure the Philippines government.
What is Pfizer up to? Well, they sell a drug, amlodipine besylate, that is marketed by Pfizer in the United States under the trade name Norvasc. It is used to treat hypertension, angina and myocardial ischemia. The drug is sold in two dosage formats: 5 mg. and 10 mg. tablets, and typically taken once a day.
In the Philippines, Pfizer charges from $.88 to $1.46 per day for Norvasc (more for the larger dose). In 2004, the average per capita income in the Philippines was $3.20 per day. Eighty percent of the population lives on less than $2 per day. Pfizer knows this. They have calculated that they can make greater profits selling Norvasc at a high price to a small number of the wealthiest Filipinos (less than 5 percent of the population can afford the drug), than a larger number of people with lower incomes.
The Philippine government is trying to undertake some extremely modest measures to lower the price of this drug. They want to import versions of the drug that Pfizer sells in other countries. Pfizer charges much lower prices for the same drug in Thailand, Indonesia, India and other countries in the region. And, the Philippines government says it won't even do this until June 2007, when the Pfizer patent on Norvasc expires.
In other words, the Philippines government is allowing Pfizer to price Norvasc out of reach for 95 percent of the population of the country for the entire term of the patent, but they want the cheaper prices foreigners pay, when the patent expires.
But this isn't good enough for Pfizer. Pfizer is suing the government, and government officials personally, so it can stop the process of testing the imports. Pfizer figures this might delay the imports of the cheaper drugs for 18 months. And Pfizer also hopes they can stop the Philippines government from reducing the prices of other Pfizer products, including Lipitor, Zithromax and Unasyn, which are in a similar situation.
The legal issues are described briefly in this blog by my colleague Judit Rius.
Pfizer seems to be succeeding in bullying the Philippine government. Apparently the Philippine government has stopped efforts to register the cheaper imported products.
This is only the latest installment in a long history of pressure on the Philippines government. For example, check out this astonishing report by Jennifer Ellen Mattson on a 1999 Collaboration between the US government and pharmaceutical industry to oppose Philippine government efforts to promote expanded use of generics for off-patented drugs.
It would be nice if the US news media would report on disputes like this, so US citizens would know what our government is up around the world (note the role of Clinton's Secretary of State Madeline Albright in the deplorable 1999 dispute), and it would be important also for the public to understand what type of company Pfizer is, and to appreciate why the Pfizer CEO Hank McKinnell is considered somewhat out of control even by other pharmaceutical company executives.