China’s “Naked Bolar” and the Tapering Momentum to Protect Innovative Pharmaceuticals

There have been several important developments in recent weeks involving pharmaceutical IP protection in both mainland China and Taiwan.  Based on these developments, mainland China appears to be slowing its momentum to afford better IP protection to innovative pharmaceutical products (perhaps as a negotiating position in the Trade War), while Taiwan is pursuing a more protective approach.

On August 26, 2019, China’s National People’s Congress adopted the new Drug Administration Law (“DAL”), which will take effect on December 1, 2019. The DAL was passed after almost two years of review and deliberation.  The legislative history is set forth in the  NPC Observer.    The new law addresses some important issues involving counterfeit and substandard medicines.  However, it does little to improve the IP regime for innovative medicines.

As noted in this blog, there had been expectations that certain IP issues such as patent linkage and regulatory data protection might be reflected in the DAL and especially pending IP legislation.  In the latest draft of the Chinese Patent Laws presented to the State Council in December 2018, no detailed improvement mechanisms of the patent examination/granting system were included with respect to pharmaceutical patents were included.   It was hoped that a linkage system would emerge as part of a package of legal reforms to resolve the US-China trade war or to implement as earlier CFDA policy decision.

China has long adopted one small part of a modern IP/regulatory approval mechanism to encourage its generic sector.  China’s “Bolar Exemption” which was incorporated into the 2008 Patent Law amendments (Article 69), exempts from infringement producing, using, or importing patented drugs or patented medical apparatus and instruments, for the purpose of providing the information required for administrative examination and approval.   This type of Bolar Exemption has often been called a “naked Bolar exemption” as it provides for the erosion of the innovator’s patent rights to exempt from infringement research to introduce competing generic drugs.  It is “naked” as it it does not compensate the innovator for the losses of the patent term caused by this exemption nor for the resultant instability to any marketing exclusivity the innovator may face by reason of accelerated challenges to the patents it holds.   One way of compensating the innovator for such erosion of the term is to extend it on the “back end”  before its expiration.  A 2019 draft of the patent law amendments sought to correct this lack of a patent term extension.  Another way of providing for greater stability would be establishing a patent linkage regime which “links” marketing authorization with patents that read on the relevant pharmaceutical product or successful challenges to its exclusivity.

The current naked Bolar regime has several adverse consequences. The most obvious and significant is that it does not provide legal support for approval and marketing of generic drugs that are proven not to infringe an innovator’s patent rights, as a “patent linkage” regime might.   A Bolar exemption only addresses research intended to support regulatory approval and is not an exemption from infringement.  To the extent that Chinese regulatory authorities may be relying on the Bolar exemption to approve the marketing of infringing generics, such an effort is legally misguided.  A naked Bolar is not a substitute for an IP and regulatory regime that balances the needs of generics and innovators.  As Amcham noted in its comments on the original Bolar exception provision: “Effective IP protection for pharmaceutical products requires notice, transparency, and time to resolve legal issues prior to the approval of a generic product.” Such protections are not afforded under the existing regime and could be with an effective linkage regime.

Another adverse consequence is that it erodes the term of the patentee without the kind of bargaining that went into the US Bolar exemption, creating a kind of sui generis exemption from infringement for additional acts of research to facilitate product introduction which is not otherwise permitted under the patent law.  To the extent that the naked Bolar expands research exemptions to production and warehousing of an infringing generic pharmaceutical, and does not adequately limited or compensate the rights holder,  it may violate the terms set forth the in the WTO decision EU v Canada (DS/114) where the WTO noted that the Canadian Bolar exception could only apply to regulatory review where  “no commercial use is made of resulting final products.” (line 7.45).   The Bolar exemption should not be used to bootstrap a broader researcher or pre-marketing exemption.  As former Chief Judge Rader noted of the US patent law in discussing research exemptions: “the Patent Act leaves no room for any de minimis or experimental use excuses for infringement. Because the Patent Act confers the right to preclude ‘use,’ not ‘substantial use,’ no room remains in the law for a de minimis excuse.”  (Embrex v. Service Engineering, 216 F.3d 1343 (Fed. Cir. 2000).

Finally,  the “naked Bolar” sends a wrong signal by suggesting that China is not fully committed to developing an innovative pharmaceutical sector, despite China’s considerable human resources, investments, rhetoric and planning to the contrary.

Judging by recent generic drug approvals in China, there may be decreased momentum on the ground to protect innovative pharmaceuticals through limiting regulatory approval during the pendency of relevant patent protection.  Several generic versions of innovative pharmaceutical products have recently been approved by China for different manufacturers at the time of these recent DAL amendments, including Azilsartan, a product originally developed by Takeda that addresses hypertension, and is now produced by Zhaoke Pharma, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Lees Pharma. Azilsartan and Esketamine (a Janssen product for treatment-resistant depression) are also now being produced by Jiangsu Hengrui Medicine.  Pomalidomide,  a Celgene-developed product for treating multiple myeloma,  is produced by Chiatai Tianqing Pharma.  Bendamustine, a Teva product for  chronic lymphocytic leukemia, is being produced by Nanjing Simcere Pharma.  These products have obtained approval priority from CFDA and are expected to be approved by the time the new DAL comes into effect.  As is evident from this list, some products (Azilsartan) are being produced in generic form by more than one manufacturer.  This phenomenon of multiple competing generic manufacturers who may not have had to pursue patent challenges to the innovator to obtain marketing approval (as in a linkage regime), could also result in competition amongst generic manufacturers without strong incentives for follow-on innovation to the original compound.

By comparisons to this apparent backsliding in Mainland China, the Taiwan Executive Yuan has passed the bill to enact the new Pharmaceutical Affairs Act (“PAA”) on January 31, 2018. Patent linkage was specifically approved in Chapter 4 of the new PAA. Previously, in 2018, the Taiwan Food and Drug Administration had issued two drafts of the Enforcement Rules for Patent Linkage. Further, in May 2019, the Taiwan Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Economic Affairs held a public hearing to clarify the intent to extend the patent linkage system in PAA to biosimilars. In July 2019, the Ministry of Health and Welfare officially announced that it is considering adding transitional clauses to exempt biosimilars which have obtained official clinical trial approvals during the implementation phase of patent linkage system in Taiwan.

While there appears to be weakening momentum for patent linkage, the DAL does change the regulatory regime for counterfeit medicines and vaccines.  In an apparent effort to address public health needs, the DAL, as revised, modifies the definition of counterfeit drugs.   Under the prior version of the DAL, unapproved imported drugs are deemed as counterfeit. Although the new DAL still prohibits importing and selling of unapproved drugs in large quantity, the importation of small amounts of drugs which have been legally marketed in other countries for urgent clinical needs is exempted under the new DAL, subject to other relevant laws and regulation.  The DAL also seeks to strengthen regulation over vaccine manufacturing, most likely in response to the vaccine scandal of 2018. Under the DAL, out-sourcing of vaccine manufacture is strictly prohibited. The punishment on manufacture and supply of counterfeit vaccine has increased from 5 times of revenue to 30 times of illegal proceeds.  The vaccine Marketing Authorization Holder (“MAH”) must meet certain standards set out in the new Vaccine Administration Law. The regulators will also establish a national traceable platform for the production, transportation, and storage of vaccines.  Lastly, new mechanisms such as the MAH system, defective drug recall system, filing system of clinical trial institutions will be implemented.  The existing “Good Manufacturing Practice for Pharmaceutical Products” (GMP) certification system for drug manufacturers and the “Good Supply Practice for Pharmaceutical Products (GSP) certification system for drug suppliers will be canceled.

Looking at all of the various legislative and regulatory developments in Mainland China and Taiwan, it is hoped that mainland China will ultimately find the right balance of incentives to encourage the further development of its innovative pharmaceutical sector, much as the US did with its Hatch-Waxman Act, while continuing to develop a secure supply of high quality innovative and generic products.

This article was written by Mark A. Cohen and Angel Liu.