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Generic Prozac gets an OK

Ruling is blow for company relying heavily on drug

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Prozac users soon will be able to purchase a less expensive, generic form of the anti-depressant after a federal court opted Wednesday not to extend the drug's patent protection.

The ruling was a major blow to manufacturer Eli Lilly and Co., which relies on Prozac for nearly a quarter of its total sales. Lilly had been seeking to protect itself from competitors until December 2003.

But the decision is a major boon to consumers, including in Utah, where sales totaled $283,534 in 1999. Nationally, Prozac had $2 billion in 1999 sales.

"It's good for consumers, obviously, because then they get the benefit of competition," said Meredith Alden, director of Utah's division of mental health.

Generic drugmaker Barr Laboratories Inc., which has battled Lilly for its patent since 1996, already has plans to produce a generic Prozac by February. That drug could be on the shelves by next August, and Barr officials promise the costs will be substantially lower than for the brand-name version.

IHC Health Center pharmacist John McMurray also said the savings to consumers could be substantial but just how much depends on drugmakers.

"We really don't know," McMurray said. "Generally what happens is that you'll see the major players in the generic manufacturers posture themselves to capture the raw material."

There are at least a dozen "major players," McMurray said, but how many will produce the generic form is still up in the air. Obviously, he said, the more companies that produce generic equivalents, the more consumers will benefit from the competition.

Generic forms of the drug will be most beneficial to cash customers, McMurray said. Others — roughly 80 percent of the U.S. population with private insurance — will simply see a $5 across-the-board decrease in their insurance co-pays.

But that is still good, Alden said. He said Prozac has benefited a large number of Utahns and any savings are welcome.

Prozac has been on the market since the mid-1980s and has just recently lost its status as the nation's top-selling anti-depressant in terms of new prescriptions. Pfizer's Zoloft and SmithKline's Paxil have claimed the No. 1 and No. 2 positions, but Prozac sales are still strong.

Contributing: Associated Press

E-MAIL: awelling@desnews.com