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AbbVie's research center in Massachusetts. Photo: AbbVie

AbbVie is facing a growing class-action lawsuit in which unions and municipalities say they have overpaid for the blockbuster drug Humira as a result of AbbVie's "anticompetitive conduct" to keep cheaper alternatives at bay.

The big picture: This has snowballed into a big case, with a lot on the line — both financially and as a referendum on the accusations that pharmaceutical companies manipulate the patent system to preserve monopoly prices for their prized drugs.

Details: The suing parties include cops in Miami, city employees in Baltimore, pipefitters and electricians in Minnesota, and grocers and construction workers in New York.

What they're saying:

  • AbbVie obtained hundreds of patents on Humira as a way "to deter any potential competitor" from easily making cheaper copycats after Humira's original patent expired, according to the lawsuits.
  • The company struck deals with several competing drug manufacturers that stipulate biosimilar versions of Humira can't come out in the U.S. until 2023.
  • Amgen, which will make the first Humira biosimilar, also is listed as a defendant. AbbVie and Amgen inked a deal that will give Amgen's biosimlilar 5 months of exclusive sales in exchange for holding off until 2023. The plaintiffs say that will cost them hundreds of millions of dollars.

Between the lines: The lawsuits argue in detail that drug companies can obtain patents under the guise of protecting innovation, while in reality only protecting an economic moat.

  • "It's not an antitrust violation to obtain a patent, but what happens when you get 100 patents?" said Michael Carrier, an antitrust and intellectual property professor at Rutgers University. "At some point, does that cross a line?"

The other side: AbbVie and Amgen both defended themselves.

  • An AbbVie spokesperson said "the plaintiffs' allegations are factually inaccurate and legally baseless," and that "AbbVie's settlement agreements resolved complex intellectual property issues and provide biosimilar access more than 10 years before our last Humira patent expires."
  • An Amgen spokesperson added the company's settlement with AbbVie "was pro-competitive, and not anticompetitive, because it allows Amgen's product to come to the U.S. market years before the expiration of all of AbbVie's asserted patents."

What's next: More employers may hop on the class-action suit. But AbbVie and Amgen likely will let this play out in the courts, rather than settling, considering how much they have invested in their patent strategy, Carrier said.

  • "There's so much money at stake," he said.

Go deeper

Right wing builds its own echo chamber

Expand chart
Data: Apptopia; Table: Axios Visuals

Conservatives are aggressively building their own apps, phones, cryptocurrencies and publishing houses in an attempt to circumvent what they see as an increasingly liberal internet and media ecosystem.

Why it matters: Many of these efforts couldn't exist without the backing of major corporate figures and billionaires who are eager to push back against things like "censorship" and "cancel culture."

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Myanmar's deposed leader Aung San Suu Kyi sentenced to 4 years in prison

An anti-coup protest in Yangon, Myanmar.Photo: Hkun Lat/Getty Images

A Myanmar court sentenced the country's ousted leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, on Monday to four years in prison on charges of "inciting public unrest" and breaking COVID-19 protocols, per the New York Times.

Why it matters: It's the first of several verdicts that could result in the 76-year-old Nobel laureate being imprisoned for the rest of her life. The 11 charges she faces have been widely criticised as politically motivated.

6 hours ago - World

Pope Francis denounces European governments' migrant response

Pope Francis adresses refugees at the Reception and Identification Centre (RIC) in Mytilene on the island of Lesbos on Sunday. Photo: Louisa Gouliamaki/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Pope Francis criticized European countries' response to migrants and asylum seekers during his visit to a refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesbos Sunday.

Why it matters: The pope said "migration is a humanitarian crisis that concerns everyone," but little had changed in the global response to displaced peoples since his first visit to Lesbos five years ago, per a transcript of his remarks. "Human lives, real people, are at stake. ... let us stop this shipwreck of civilization!"