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MSD blocked from raising public interest defence to injunction in Prevnar vaccine case

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  • Feb 03, 2021
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Merck Sharp & Dohme Corp v Wyeth LLC (No 4) [2020] FCA 1719

In a previous article, we discussed Justice Stephen Burley’s finding that a Wyeth patent covering certain vaccines against Streptococcus pneumoniae was valid and would be infringed by a 15-valent vaccine that Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD) planned to launch in Australia.  By a subsequent judgment, Burley J has now granted final relief consequential on those findings, including an injunction restraining launch of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine.  The judgment is notable for his Honour’s rejection of a request, made by MSD, for a separate hearing on the question of whether injunctive relief ought to be refused on public interest grounds, given the significant medical benefits offered by MSD’s 15-valent vaccine. 

Key takeaways

  • Under existing Australian law, the starting position is that a patent owner successful in infringement proceedings will ordinarily be entitled to a final injunction restraining supply of an infringing product.  Nevertheless, in deciding whether to grant an injunction in each case, the court will have regard to all relevant considerations, including the public interest.
  • A defendant seeking to avoid final injunctive relief on public interest grounds faces both substantive and procedural hurdles.  The defendant may need to apply, at an early stage of the proceeding, to have the public interest question heard and determined separately, after the main trial on patent infringement and validity.

Background

The technology at issue in these proceedings was reviewed in our previous article.  Very briefly, more than 90 different serotypes of the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae (or “pneumococcus”) have been identified.  A limited number of especially virulent serotypes cause around 1 to 2 million childhood deaths globally, each year.  Wyeth’s Prevnar 13® vaccine, which is currently listed on Australia’s National Immunisation Program, targets 13 of those serotypes.  The 15-valent vaccine developed by MSD targets two additional serotypes, offering broader protection against pneumococcal disease.

In his previous judgment,  Burley J found that marketing of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine in Australia would involve infringement of one of three patents asserted by Wyeth in this proceeding (his Honour found the asserted claims of the other two asserted patents to be invalid).

Under Australia’s existing law on remedies for patent infringement, the starting position for analysis is that a patent owner successful in infringement proceedings will ordinarily be entitled to a final injunction, assuming there is a threat of ongoing infringement.  On the other hand, an injunction is an equitable, and therefore discretionary, remedy and a court will have regard to all relevant considerations in assessing whether injunctive relief is appropriate in each particular case, including considerations of proportionality.

A relatively recent decision of Australia’s Full Federal Court has confirmed that a final injunction for patent infringement will ordinarily be granted in terms which, in addition to restraining the specific conduct that was held to infringe at trial, restrains generally any further infringing conduct by the defendant (Calidad Pty Ltd v Seiko Epson Corporation (No 2) [2019] FCAFC 168, as we reported in our Best Patent Cases 2019 publication available here).  An injunction granted in that form places on the defendant the risk of being held in contempt of court if it chooses to “sail close to the wind” by engaging in further conduct that, although modified from the conduct that was found to infringe at trial, could nevertheless still be found to fall within the scope of the patentee’s claims.

In the Prevnar vaccine case, MSD did not challenge the particular form of injunctive relief sought by Wyeth.  Rather, MSD argued that no final injunction should be granted at all, or alternatively that the question of injunctive relief should be deferred until after the determination of any appeal.  MSD based those arguments on the public interest in accessing its 15-valent vaccine, given the health advantages that vaccine would confer over the currently-available Prevnar 13® product.

Public interest

The need to take account of public interest considerations in assessing injunctive relief for patent infringement has been recognised in recent case law across a number of jurisdictions. 

Recent US case law has built upon the foundation laid by the landmark decision of the US Supreme Court in eBay Inc v MercExchange LLC, 547 US 388 (2006).  The eBay case established that a patent owner seeking final injunctive relief for infringement must establish that (1) it has suffered irreparable injury; (2) damages would not be an adequate remedy; (3) the balance of hardships between patent owner and defendant favours equitable relief; and (4) the public interest would not be disserved by a final injunction – the so-called “eBay factors”.

The role of public interest considerations in the grant or refusal of final injunctive relief for patent infringement was also considered in the recent UK case of Evalve Inc v Edwards Lifesciences Limited [2020] EWHC 513.  The defendant in that case opposed the grant of a final injunction, based on evidence that some medical practitioners believe, on reasonable grounds, that the infringing medical device (used to repair leaky heart valves) performs better in certain patients than the patent owner’s device.  As a fallback position, the defendant argued that use of the infringing device in those patients should be carved out of the scope of any final injunction.

In a detailed review of the issue, UK High Court Justice Colin Birss identified the following matters as relevant to the role of public interest considerations in the grant or refusal of injunctive relief for patent infringement.

First, the UK Patents Act 1977 (in common with patents legislation in Australia and several other jurisdictions) includes a number of provisions that reflect the legislature’s assessment on public interest issues.  These include, for example, statutory exclusions from patent infringement (e.g., for experimental use), compulsory licensing provisions and the Crown use scheme.  By the latter provisions, a government may authorise use of a patented invention without the patent owner’s consent where this is deemed to be in the public interest. 

Secondly, a patent infringer who invokes the public interest as a reason to withhold a final injunction is, in effect, seeking a compulsory licence without having established the statutory grounds on which such licences are ordinarily made available.

Thirdly, to assess whether it would be just in all of the circumstances to withhold a final injunction on public interest grounds, a court must be provided with evidence concerning the adequacy of damages to compensate the patent owner in lieu of an injunction.  Speaking hypothetically, Birss J observed that, if the level of compensation required to adequately compensate the patent owner would strip the infringer of their entire profits, then refusing an injunction may be to no avail, since the infringing product is unlikely to be made available in such circumstances.

In light of these considerations, Birss J concluded that, in patent infringement proceedings, the bar for refusing a final injunction on public interest grounds is high.  His Honour expressed the view that, generally speaking, it will be necessary to establish by objective evidence that the defendant’s product is needed to protect the lives of patients for whom it is the only suitable treatment (at [87]).

MSD submitted that those conditions would be satisfied in the Australian Prevnar vaccine case.  It invited Burley J to convene a separate hearing on whether it was against the public interest to grant a final injunction, at which hearing MSD proposed to adduce additional evidence, including evidence concerning the prevalence of pneumococcal serotypes covered by its 15-valent vaccine that are not covered by Wyeth’s Prevnar 13® product.

Justice Burley refused MSD’s request for a separate hearing and determined that it was appropriate that Wyeth be granted a final injunction restraining supply of MSD’s 15-valent vaccine.  His Honour’s reasons for that decision highlight the challenges facing a defendant seeking to resist final injunctive relief on public interest grounds in a patent infringement case.

On the one hand, Burley J pointed to a number of factors suggesting it was premature to determine the public interest question.  MSD has not yet obtained regulatory approval to market its 15-valent vaccine in Australia and its intended launch date remains unclear.  Wyeth’s counsel indicated that Pfizer (the parent company of Wyeth) intends launching a 20-valent pneumococcal vaccine in Australia, which may come to market before the MSD product is approved.  Justice Burley observed that the timeline of these events would be expected to have a significant bearing on the assessment of the public interest arguments raised by MSD.

On the other hand, Burley J found that the question of whether a final injunction should be refused on public interest grounds had been raised on the pleadings for the infringement case and his Honour was not persuaded that MSD should be permitted to, in effect, re-open its case on this issue, after judgment.

It is possible that MSD may seek to test those conclusions before the Full Federal Court.  A notice of appeal against Burley J’s judgment on issues of validity and infringement was filed by MSD in late January.

Significance

Justice Burley’s decision highlights the substantive and procedural challenges faced by a defendant in patent infringement proceedings seeking to argue that final injunctive relief should be refused on public interest grounds. 

In light of this decision, defendants who wish to preserve the ability to oppose final injunctive relief on public interest grounds may need to apply, at an early stage in the proceeding, to have that question deferred for separate determination, after the main trial on infringement and validity, with the parties granted leave to file fresh evidence on the public interest considerations which apply at that time.

Authored by Andrew Rankine and Duncan Longstaff