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UPDATE 1-EU ramps up drugs patent settlements scrutiny

* EU says some patents prevent generic drugs market entry

* Says scrutiny shows reduced number of problematic patents

* Says amount involved cut from 200 mln euros to 1 mln

(Adds details, Almunia comment, background)

By Bate Felix

BRUSSELS, Jan 17 (Reuters) - The EU regulator said on Monday it was pressing pharmaceutical companies for more information on their patent deals with generic companies to make sure there is no delay in cheaper drugs coming to market.

The move is the latest in a series of EU crackdowns on possible anti-competitive practices in the pharmaceutical sector after a 2009 patents enquiry pointed to significant risks for European consumers, the Commission said.

It did not mention any company it requested information from, but Britain's AstraZeneca PLC AZN.L and GlaxoSmithKline GSK.L, France's Sanofi-Aventis SASY.PA and Novartis NOVN.VX and Roche ROG.VX of Switzerland said last year the Commission had contacted them about drug patent settlements.

The European Commission, the competition watchdog of the 27-nation EU bloc, said it had asked firms to submit copies of their patent settlement agreements concluded in the bloc last year.

Patent settlements are generally fees paid by pharmaceutical companies to generic drug makers to persuade them to delay selling the generic version of their medicines.

“Patent settlements are an area of particular concern because they may delay the market entry of generic medicines,” Competition Commissioner Joaquin Almunia said in a statement.

“The outcome of our first monitoring exercise showed that potentially problematic agreements had decreased significantly,” he said.

It said the number of such patent settlements fell to 10 percent of total patent settlements in the sector in the period July 2008 to Dec. 2009, compared with 22 percent in the period covered in the inquiry into the sector from Jan. 2000 to June 2008.

“The amount of money involved in the settlements, between the so-called ‘originator’ pharmaceutical companies and producers of generic drugs also decreased from more than 200 million euros ($266 million) recorded in the sector inquiry period, to less than 1 million euros, according to the 2010 report,” the Commission said. (Reporting by Bate Felix, editing by David Cowell) ($1=.7512 Euro) (Reuters Messaging: bate.felix.reuters.com@reuters.net; Email:bate.felix@thomsonreuters.com; Tel:+3222876812))

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