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Senate vote called windfall for drug firms

(ran HT, NP edition)

Advocates of lower-cost, nonbrand-name drugs suffered defeat recently when the Senate voted to kill a measure that would have opened the door more quickly to less expensive drugs.

Supporters of the measure were trying to close what they called a loophole in the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) that extended the patent protection many drug companies claim for their products. Patent coverage was prolonged by up to 20 months, according to consumer advocates.

As a result, say groups ranging from the Gray Panthers to the American Association of Retired Persons, people buying medicine for allergies, high cholesterol and ulcers are likely to pay several billion more dollars for their prescriptions in coming years.

The biggest winner from the Senate vote will be the drug company Glaxo-Wellcome. It makes Zantac, a medication for ulcers and the world's leading selling prescription drug. Patients using it can spend as much as $200 a month for the drug.

Sen. David Pryor, D-Ark., calling the recent Senate vote a $2.5-billion windfall to Glaxo, wanted to shorten the patent extension granted under GATT to Glaxo and other companies.

Glaxo and other proponents of the extended time period said it's needed to give companies sufficient financial incentive to continue developing new drugs.

Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, led the fight against shortening the patent protection period.

He said the extended time limit was not an inadvertent loophole but was intended by Congress when it passed the GATT treaty.

"This was not an oversight," he said.