The Cart Before the Horse in China’s Patent Linkage Regime

Since China’s legislature amended the patent law on October 17, 2020 and China’s National Medical Products Administration (NMPA) and  its National IP Administration (CNIPA) published the Implementation Measures for the Early Resolution Procedures for Drug Patent Disputes (Trial) (Draft for Comment) ( 国家药监局综合司 国家知识产权局办公室公开征求《药品专利纠纷早期解决机制实施办法(试行)(征求意见稿)》意见) (the “Rule”) on September 11, 2020, several people have written to me who are bewildered about the sequence of rules being proposed on patent linkage in advance of the enactment of patent linkage into law.  This post analyzes whether this “cart before the horse” scenario should be a concern for US pharmaceutical companies, and what this counter-intuitive sequencing may suggest for China’s new patent linkage regime.  

This is indeed an unexpected circumstance.  There was no advance word that the Rule was being prepared for public release. CNIPA and NMPA’s parent agency, the State Administration for Market Regulation (SAMR), did not include a patent linkage rule in its 2020 legislative work plan.  CNIPA also had not included a patent linkage rule among its top 100 IP projects for 2020.  However both SAMR and CNIPA did include the more general Implementing Regulations for a revised patent law in their anticipated legislative work for 2020.   By contrast, the Beijing IP Court issued a research report on Patent Linkage (中国药品专利链接制度研究) in late September, which advocated judicial reforms to support a linkage regime.  In addition, the Supreme People’s Court in its 2020 annual plan announced its intention to draft a judicial interpretation (JI) for patent linkage cases.  They have not yet released their draft JI.

This “cart before the horse” Rule may trace part of its origins to the Phase 1 Trade Agreement (January 15, 2020) (the “Agreement”).  The Agreement did not explicitly require that the civil courts play the leading role for patent linkage disputes. The Agreement also failed to establish an “artificial infringement” regime for the Courts to rule that an application for marketing approval of a patent drug constitutes infringement.   Instead, it required that China adopt “procedures for judicial or administrative proceedings and expeditious remedies”, and that China “may … provide” administrative remedies for resolution of linkage disputes (Art. 1.11).   In so doing, the Agreement left open the possibility that the administrative agencies would play the dominant role in a patent linkage regime.

More generally, the Agreement also authorized a leading role for administrative IP enforcement in a range of areas with its repeated references to campaign-style administrative enforcement.  The Agreement also did not acknowledge or seek improvements to China’s notable IP-related judicial reforms.   The Agreement was also immediately preceded by an important State Council/Party Central Committee plan that called for strengthening of administrative enforcement (Nov. 24, 2019), and that was considered in its time to be a high-level policy precursor to the Agreement.  This policy evolution has also been accompanied by changes to all of China’s major IP laws including the Trademark law, the Patent Law, the Anti-Unfair Competition Law, as well as proposed Copyright Law Amendments, that all further commit China to strengthened administrative enforcement of IP.

CNIPA and NMPA took the next step of securing a key role for their agencies in patent linkage when they drafted and published the Rule.  I use the term “Rule” (規章) or “Departmental Rule” (部門規章) in this blog as a term of art, consistent with China’s Law on Legislation 立法法.  The nomenclature is also consistent with China’s own descriptions of its legal system  upon acceding to the WTO.  A Rule is a legislative document enacted by a departmental agency that is inferior to a Law (法律)that has been passed by the National People’s Congress or  a State Council-enacted Regulation (法規).  As set forth in the hierarchy of the Law on Legislation, it is also inferior to many types of local legislation.  As with other Rules, NMPA/CNIPA does not use the word “rule” in its September 11 pronouncement.  It instead calls its legislation “procedures” (办法). However, do not be misled! The Law on Legislation does not use “Procedures”  as a term to categorize legislation, even if regulatory agencies use this term in their own enactments.  When a Departmental Agency enacts a legislative document it is typically a “Rule” under the Law on Legislation based on the enacting agency and the legislative process. The categorization of legislation is often not immediately clear from its own wording.  Moreover, the legal status can also become murkier if sui generis or inter-agency procedures not otherwise in the Law on Legislation are involved.

In amending the Patent Law, the NPC cemented the leading role of NMPA and CNIPA by declining to legislate on linkage in detail and delegating rule-making authority to these agencies. According to Article 76,  “procedures” (or a “Rule”) will be drafted by NMPA and CNIPA to govern “pharmaceutical approvals and applications for marketing approvals.” Article 76 further requires the “procedures” to be delivered to the State Council for its approval before implementation (国务院药品监督管理部门会同国务院专利行政部门制定药品上市许可审批与药品上市许可申请阶段专利权纠纷解决 接办法,报国务院同意后实施).  By delegating drafting authority to NMPA and CNIPA and legislating that the State Council will be the final arbiter of its contents, the Patent Law has likely placed the NMPA and CNIPA Rule within that murky class of sui generis enactments.   

In its final form the State-Council approved patent linkage Rule is unlikely to be in conflict with any explicit Patent Law Amendment provisions. The State Council approval mechanism also still leaves open the possibility for additional policy interventions that are consistent with the Patent Law.  One important modification that might be considered would be to authorize the Ministry of Justice (MOJ) take a more active role in the drafting of the Rule or craft the Rule as a Regulation promulgated by the State Council itself. Pursuant to the administrative restructuring of March 13, 2018, MOJ is required to perform the legislative functions formerly performed by the Legislative Affairs Office of the State Council  (《第十三届全国人民代表大会第一次会议 关于国务院机构改革方案的决定》,批准《国务院机构改革方案》, which previously prepared Regulations.   

If the State Council were to take a leading role in drafting on patent linkage, past practice would suggest it will ensure that all agencies concerned would have an opportunity to comment.  The agencies would not only include NMPA and CNIPA but could also include the courts, trade, health, science or industrial planning and development agencies, as well as authorities responsible for personnel and budgeting.   A Regulation or sui generis Rule which involves all relevant agencies might also obviate the  failures of a prior linkage rule in 2002 which relied exclusively on administrative rule making.  As the late Prof. Benjamin Liu wryly observed at that time: “the SFDA  [predecessor agency to NMPA] does not always succeed with its gate-keeping function.”  Deputy Director Ding Jianhua of SFDA also succinctly stated the problem:   “SFDA is not responsible for IPR.” [1]

Judicial involvement in this legislation is needed to harmonize the legal complexities of patent linkage which complex issues of patent law, civil law, administrative law, and pharmaceutical regulation.  A lack of judicial involvement confounded the implementation of the 2002 rule.  This 2002 Rule (and subsequent amendments) was further stymied by later legislative changes in the patent law when China added a “Bolar exemption” to exempt pre-marketing approval efforts by generic companies from claims of infringement.  In Prof. Liu’s words, this exemption  “swallowed the rule of patent linkage.”  Bolar exemptions are well-known in international practice, being an exemption from civil infringement claims and are within the purview of the courts.  Overly-broad Bolar exemptions can raise concerns over compliance with TRIPS and other international IP obligations.

China’s vast administrative system must surmount other challenges to lead a patent linkage regime. These challenges include: a lack of administrative enforcement transparency; uncertainty regarding coordination between judicial and administrative enforcement; differing legal appeal routes and standards for litigating infringement which may lead to undermining of one system over another; concern for the systemic impacts on China’s IP regime by relying on administrative interventions rather than the civil system; limited foreign utilization of the patent administrative enforcement system particularly for high value pharmaceutical rights; and the inherent “fox guarding the hen house” fear when the administrative agencies that grant patent rights and marketing authorizations are also tasked with enforcing these important rights. 

Long-term observers may also fret that CNIPA and NMPA are an “odd couple” to administer a linkage regime  Although they are housed in the same mega-agency, SAMR, NMPA in recent years has been a leading advocate for  patent linkage, while  CNIPA had been viewed as less supportive. There are also continuing concerns over CNIPA’s excessive invalidation of pharma patents.

At this stage, the most appropriate corrective to these various challenges would be to leverage the State Council’s authority to take a leadership role in implementing Article 76 of the Patent Law, as well insure that there is conforming language in the Patent Law Implementing Regulations which MOJ will likely be coordinating in the near future.  An effective linkage regime for China will not only need to balance the interests of generics and innovators in China’s linkage regime, but also between the courts and the range of concerned administrative agencies.

Where will China go next at this important juncture on patent linkage?  Berkeley Law will be convening a webinar on China’s patent linkage regime as part of a multi-part series on food and drug law.  I will be joined by He Jing from the GEN law firm, Cui Can from Morrison and Forster, Dr. Karen Guo from Novo Nordisk and Xuejiao Hu from Beigene.  The event will take place on November 17.  Registration information is available here


[1] Benjamin Liu, ”Fighting Poison with Poison? The Chinese Experience with Pharmaceutical Patent Linkage,” 11 J. Marshall Rev. Intell. Prop. L. 623 (2012).

Note: The Photo above by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-SA

A Potpourri of AIPLA Legislative Comments — And Other Developments

potpourri

The American Intellectual Property Law Association has once again made its comments on proposed changes to Chinese IP legislation (laws, regulations, rules, examination guidelines,  judicial interpretations, etc. ) available to this blog.

Attached are the AIPLA’s response to the request for comments to revision of the trademark law in China (商标法修改公开征集意见) first published by SAIC.  SAIC is now a part of SAMR – the State Administration for Market Regulation. It had published a public solicitation of ideas for revising the trademark law on April 2, 2018, with a due date for comments of July 31, 2018.  AIPLA’s comments primarily focus on providing clarifying and strengthening legislation regarding bad faith trademark applications and registrations.

AIPLA has also commented on the proposed patent validity rules  of the SPC on administrative patent litigation (最高人民法院关于审理专利授权 确权行政案件若干问题的规定(公开征求意见稿)).  This judicial interpretation was previously discussed in this blog, with a translation by the Anjie law firm.  Additionally, here  is the Chinese version of these comments.

Finally, AIPLA has commented on the special approval procedure for innovative medica devices (创新医疗设备特别批准程序(修订稿)) which was first published for public comment on May 7, with a closing date of June 15.   Here is a text of the draft approval procedures in Chinese.

In a related legislative development, the recent dismissal of party secretary Bi Jinquan of the SAMR due the tainted vaccine scandal may also impact reforms that BI had spearheaded, which included pharma-related IP reforms (patent linkage, regulatory data protection, etc).   Commissioner Bi formerly served as the leader of China’s Food and Drug Administration.  An August 20, 2018 notice of the State Council  (no. 83) on deepening reform in China’s medical sector ominously omits any mention of patents or IP reform.  国务院办公厅关于印发深化医药卫生体制改革2018年下半年重点工作任务的通知, (国办发〔2018〕83号.  The next place where we might see the continued life in these reforms is in the proposed revisions to China’s patent law, which the National People’s Congress had tabled for completion by the end of 2018 as noted in its 2018 workplan  (全国人大常委会2018年工作要点).  A first draft of the revised patent law is needed as early as late August/early September 2018 in order to meet the NPC’s deadline.  One much anticipated pharma-related concern in the new draft, which would also support China’s efforts to develop both an innovative and high quality pharma sector, is incorporation of “artificial infringement” by which a request for regulatory approval would be deemed an infringing act in order to support a patent linkage regime.

 

Note: The above photo by Unknown Author is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND

CFDA’s New Policies to Promote IP and Innovation in the Pharma Sector

As noted previously in this blog, the death of patent linkage which had been heralded by draft Drug Registration Rules appears to be premature.  In fact, the China Food and Drug Administration has stated that it is interested in developing a more robust patent linkage system.  On May 12, 2017, the CFDA published a draft policy announcement soliciting public comment on developing a more  IP environment for innovative drugs, including more robust patent linkage and addressing other areas, such as data exclusivity.

Patent linkage provides a “linkage” between pharmaceutical regulatory approvals and patent infringement, whereby regulatory approval is denied until the relevant patent is expired or determined to be invalid or not infringed.  A linkage system for a country like China would provide greater stability in patent enforcement for both innovators and generics, by insuring that innovators are amply protected by their innovation, and generic companies are afforded opportunities to seek regulatory approval based on proof that a patent that might otherwise prevent their entry into market is invalid or not infringed by the generic companies’ product.  The US experience with Hatch Waxman, which established our patent linkage system is that it has, in the words of former USPTO Deputy Director Teresa Rea helped “ generics account[]for 75 percent of all prescribed drugs, saving consumers and society more than $1 trillion over the last 10 years”.

This draft policy also contemplates additional improvements on data exclusivity, protecting confidential information in its procedures and developing what appears to be an “Orange Book” type system for disclosing relevant patents, as well as the periods for data exclusivity in new pharmaceutical marketing approval applications.

Providing enhanced data exclusivity protection appears to be an effort to implement a 2012 JCCT commitment regarding what constitutes a “new chemical entity” for purposes of regulatory data protection.  Certain foreign countries, such as Chile, provide data exclusivity within a window of overseas product launch, which this draft appears to borrow from to the extent of a commensurate reduction of the period of data exclusivity based on delays in introducing novel pharmaceutical products beyond a one year window into China. The draft thereby forces the hand of innovators to introduce their product expeditiously into the Chinese market.

Additional protection of confidential information in government proceedings appear to be consistent with proposed amendments to China’s Anti Unfair Competition Law and JCCT commitments.   In addition, the enhanced protection for data exclusivity is also consistent with proposed changes in the AUCL that remove the “practical applicability” requirement which by law would deny trade secret protection to experimental failures.

The draft policy does not discuss how the courts might handle data exclusivity or infringement issues, including the role of patent administrative agencies, or other aspects related to determinations of infringement that affect marketing approvals. To fully implement these policies, changes would likely need to be made in a number of laws or regulations, as well as judicial practices.  As an example, China’s patent law made need to require that a request for marketing approval would need to constitute infringement of an innovator’s patents. It is also unclear to me what courts may have jurisdiction over these matters, and if there are administrative and/or civil remedies to be made available for the various obligations that these policies propose.

Attached is a  rough, draft translation of CFDA Bulletin No. 55.  Also attached is a translation by Allen & Overy. Comments on this policy document are due by May 25 although the deadline for consultations is June 10.

All told, the draft shows an increased interest by CFDA in IP issues  in one of the most important markets in the world.  Nonetheless, as David Shen and Yijun Ge of Allen & Overy’s Shanghai office point out in their recent posting, another trend balanced against improved patent protection is generic consistency in pharmaceutical approvals.  This is also part of the drug approval reform which now mandates adherence to bioequivalence with an innovator’s approved drug, rather than previous procedures which required conformity to a national standard.  Thus, according to these authors, while an effective patent linkage system would strengthen overall patent protection, changes in bioequivalence requirements could also result in lowering the price of off-patent drugs through  different means.  As they point out: “most people believe that they [generics] will directly compete with off-patent drugs during the tendering process, without the current protection of “patented” status for the latter”.

In another development, exactly one week before this important CFDA policy document was released, the World Health Organization released its report  “China Policies to Promote Local Production of Pharmaceutical Products and Protect Public Health” (May 5, 2017).  The IP chapter of this apparently unrelated report focuses on technology transfer (Bayh-Dole), genetic resources, compulsory licensing, data exclusivity, and the need to improve domestic patent policy.  The introduction views patents as efforts to “monopoliz[e]” medicine, rather than (in my view) of taking a more pro-competition stance of recognizing that patents provide incentives to innovation and not necessarily monopolies and policies such as patent linkage strike a balance between generics and innovative companies to insure stability and competition in the market place.   In this sense, the report does not appear to anticipate the important new CFDA policy discussed above.  The words “patent linkage” do not appear in the IP section of this report, although the report does reference in an introductory footnote the “Guiding Opinions for Promoting Healthy Development of the Pharmaceutical Industry” (March 11 2016) which has a goal that generics are launched for 90 percent of drugs with expired patents by 2020.  This could be read to infer that generics are not launched when infringement has been determined, such as according to these proposed CFDA linkage policies.   In addition, the report does not consider issues the importance of post filing supplementation of data for China’s innovative industries and the role of China’s innovative companies in promoting reforms that improve IP.

Please provide any comments or suggestions to improve the draft translation or these personal observations.

Updates: afternoon of May 14, 2017 and morning of May 17, 2017.