The Biden administration’s decision this month to rebuke Big Pharma and support waiving intellectual property restrictions on COVID-19 vaccines should have been a no-brainer; as we and our allies wrote to the administration, there are immense moral, national security, and diplomatic interests in getting the whole world vaccinated as fast as possible. The big holdup, as reported by the Washington Post, came from Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo. And as Zena Wolf and I argued in The American Prospect, Raimondo’s obstinance came from the fact that this decision overturned decades of orthodoxy in the corner of her department which deals the most with IP: the Patent and Trademark Office.
Biden still hasn’t named his PTO Director, nor his head of the National Institutes of Science and Technology (NIST) which also sets certain IP standards. But the stakes are high; as our allies at the Demand Progress Education Fund wrote in a letter we joined: “We need people in these posts who will understand consideration of global health to be a serious aspect of their charges.” That’s just one part of a broader, long-overdue reckoning within PTO about who it considers its “customer base” to be; the firms which pay it fees for patent applications, or the public at large, which it serves as a government agency?
One lawyer who won’t prioritize needs outside of the corporate mindset? Pharma attorney Ellisen Turner, who Ars Technica and the Daily Poster report is on many insiders’ lips as a PTO nominee. If appointed, Turner would be a transparent and flagrant case study in the workings of the revolving door, which means he would be right in line with the IP orthodoxy PTO has upheld. Here is a brief summary of Ellisen Turner’s corporate legal work.
Turner litigated for Big Pharma to prevent generic versions of drugs from entering the market, and defended the makers of a price-gouged life-saving drug from fines.
- Turner is a partner in the Intellectual Property practice at BigLaw firm Kirkland & Ellis. His biography on the Kirkland website brags that he once sued to prevent a drug company from producing generics of his client’s medicine used to treat excess stomach acid disorders. Winning the case “caused the client’s stock price to soar over 14 percent in one day,” according to Ellis.
- Before joining Kirkland in 2019, Turner led the IP-focused firm Irell & Manella. Among its clients was Gilead Sciences, specifically regarding its Hepatitis C treatments Sovaldi (also known as sofosbuvir) and Harvoni.
- In 2013, Gilead priced Sovaldi at $1,000 per pill, or $84,000 for a full 12-week course. Experts believe it cost Gilead between $100 and $1,400 to produce a full 12-week course of Sovaldi, meaning Gilead was selling its medicine at between a 60 and 840 percent markup.
- Moreover, the federal government provided at least $4 million to aid research that led to the development of Sovaldi, and its cousin Harvoni, which was sold for $1,125 per pill or $94,500 for a full course.
- These two Hepatitis C drugs almost singularly tripled Gilead’s revenues from 2013 to 2015, from $11 billion to $33 billion. Americans paid at least $5 billion per year for the drugs. Gilead also avoided paying $10 billion in US taxes through an elaborate tax haven system from 2013 – 2016.
Turner litigated for a patent troll firm co-owned by several Big Tech giants.
- Throughout the 2010s, one of Turner’s clients was Constellation Technologies, a subsidiary of the patent-holding company Rockstar Consortium, which was co-owned by Apple, Microsoft, Sony, Blackberry, and Ericsson. Constellation doesn’t produce any products or perform any services, they simply hold billions of dollars worth of patents and extract royalties from telecom firms which use those patented technologies.
- Turner represented Rockstar when, like any patent troll, it sued big companies usually in hopes of settling cases out of court. He represented Rockstar against Windstream Holdings and TimeWarner Cable.
Turner and Trump’s PTO Director Andrei Iancu have followed nearly identical career paths.
- Donald Trump selected Andrei Iancu, then the managing partner at Irell & Manella, as his PTO Director in February 2018. Ellisen Turner was his replacement at the head of the firm.
- Irell & Manella is a BigLaw firm that specializes in patent lawsuits, and has taken on absurd and disturbing clients and cases over the years. In one example from after Turner left the firm, it represented a shell company suing manufacturers of COVID-19 testing equipment over alleged infringement of patents once held by Theranos, the largely fraudulent blood-testing company.
In 2015, while at Irell & Manella, Turner represented T-Mobile as a third party involved in a high-profile antitrust suit against microchip manufacturer Qualcomm. Turner supported sealing documents from the case away from the public eye, in part because they could have revealed just how much expense gets passed through to T-Mobile’s customers.
PHOTO: “Truvada HIV PrEP Drug – Blue Gilead Sciences Pills” by Tony Webster is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.