US research-based drugmakers have threatened to withdraw their support for President Barack Obama’s health care reforms unless biologic drugs receive 12 years’ guaranteed protection from generic competition.

Late last week, as House and Senate conference negotiators continued working round the clock to agreed a compromise health reform bill to send to the President for signing, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) president Billy Tauzin told the group’s board members in an email that Representative Henry Waxman - who chairs the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee – “is pushing hard, with the support of the President, to drop our 12-year FOB (follow-on biologics) period down. We are letting everyone we know hear that we could not support the bill if this happens.”

In fact, both the House and Senate reform bills would provide innovator firms with the 12 years’ protection they seek, but the President has long maintained that seven years is adequate. In a private meeting last Thursday, he refused to accept the arguments of House Democrats that he should support the 12 years because that is what has been agreed by the House and the Senate, according to sources close to the talks.

James Greenwood, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organisation (BIO), said this was “outrageous,” given that the issue had been “overwhelmingly settled months ago in the both the House and the Senate.”

It is not reported whether the President is still pushing for a maximum of seven years, but sources suggest that he and Rep Waxman could be looking at between seven and 10 years.

12 years’ guaranteed patent protection for biologics was one of the industry’s conditions for agreeing last June to provide $80 billion over 10 years towards the President’s health reform drive, and specifically helping to close the Medicare prescription drug plan (Part D) “doughnut hole “ coverage gap for enrollees. However, the current White House negotiations have also included proposals for the industry to contribute a further $10 billion to this effort, or perhaps even more, possibly by increasing the discount it provides from the already-agreed 50% to 75% of the prices of Medicare enrollees’ prescription medications once they hit the doughnut hole.

Complicating the biogenerics issue further is this Tuesday’s (January 19) special election in Massachusetts - home to around more than 430 biotechnology companies - for the seat of long-term health reform campaigner, the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The Democrats’ nominee, Attorney General Martha Coakley, had initially been expected to retain the seat comfortably, but the Republican contender, state Senator Scott Brown, has recently made considerable gains in the polls.

Unconfirmed reports at the weekend stated that, concerned at the potential threats to the protections for biologics, the Massachusetts chapter of BIO was planning to announce its endorsement of Sen Brown for the seat.