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China overturns Viagra patent

Pfizer plans appeal in closely watched property rights case

BEIJING -- Chinese authorities have overturned Pfizer Inc.'s patent for Viagra in a widely watched case over how much China will protect the intellectual property rights of foreign companies.

Pfizer said yesterday that it plans to appeal the decision, believed to be the first time the Chinese government has dismissed a pharmaceutical patent.

Separately, Pfizer also said that a new program that would offer people without health insurance discounts on its medicines. The program, which will begin next month, comes amid growing outrage over rapidly rising healthcare costs, particularly for the uninsured. Pfizer also expanded some of its other discount programs for the poor and elderly.

Pfizer spokesman Bryant Haskins said China's decision was ''worrisome because we believe our patent is a strong one." He wouldn't release Viagra's sales in China, but said they were small.

Foreign drug companies have been watching the case as a test of China's commitment to intellectual property rights. Deputy US Trade Representative Josette Shiner in November called the Pfizer Viagra patent challenge a ''particularly troubling" example of China's commitment to intellectual property rights.

Patent protection for drugs has been afforded in China for only about a decade, said Joseph M. Damond, associate vice president for Japan and Asia Pacific at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers Association, the industry's largest trade group.

Still, Damond said the Pfizer case should not be considered overly significant, as China's patent system is still developing. He said the industry's main concern in China is the counterfeiting operations that fester throughout the country.

Viagra was introduced in China in 2000, and after six months on the market, the official Xinhua News Agency reported that some 90 percent of Viagra pills sold in Shanghai, the country's largest city, were fake.

Pfizer has signed agreements with two government agencies in Shanghai to help local authorities spot counterfeit drugs and address the problem, Haskins said.

''No one is put in jail for counterfeiting," said Damond. ''There is no deterrent."

The patent reexamination board of China's State Intellectual Property Office overturned Pfizer's 2001 patent on the use of sildenafil citrate, Viagra's main ingredient. Pfizer's statement didn't say when the board issued its ruling.

Phone calls to the intellectual property office weren't answered yesterday afternoon and there was no reference to the ruling on the agency's website.

A group of Chinese drug companies had petitioned the office to nullify Pfizer's patent for sildenafil citrate, saying it failed to fulfill the ''novelty requirement" of Chinese law.

Under that requirement, a patent can be granted only if no identical invention has been published or used within the country.

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