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German Firm Hoechst Will Give Up Rights to Abortion Pill

Pharmaceuticals: Move follows U.S. groups' call for allergy drug boycott unless company dropped RU-486.

April 09, 1997|From Times Staff and Wire Reports

FRANKFURT, Germany — German chemical and drug group Hoechst said Tuesday that it will transfer all rights for the controversial RU-486 abortion pill to a former manager and will stop producing the drug.

The decision comes a week after U.S. anti-abortion groups called for a boycott of a new Hoechst allergy drug unless the firm dropped RU-486, which was introduced in 1988.

Hoechst has suffered considerable damage to its image through its association with RU-486, which terminates a pregnancy without surgery. The company said the transfer fits with its strategy of refocusing its pharmaceutical operations on its global drugs unit, Hoechst Marion Roussel.

"We have divorced ourselves completely from RU-486 as part of the business of tidying up and giving new strategic direction to HMR," a Hoechst spokesman said.

RU-486 has been acclaimed by abortion rights groups but became the target of fierce protests from abortion opponents.

Patent rights for the drug, also known as mifepristine, were transferred at no cost to Edouard Sakiz, a developer of the product. Sakiz recently retired as supervisory board chairman at Hoechst's French subsidiary Roussel Uclaf.

(Hoechst, the world's largest chemicals group, integrated its stake in Roussel Uclaf and its U.S. acquisition of Marion Merrell Dow to form Hoechst Marion Roussel.)

RU-486 generated sales of just $3.4 million last year and is sold in only three countries.

In the United States, Hoechst has already transferred rights for the drug to the nonprofit organization the Population Council at the request of the U.S. government.

But the transfer failed to appease abortion opponents, who just a few days ago launched a newspaper ad campaign urging consumers to boycott HMR's allergy drug Allegra, a new product available only in the United States.

In Europe, the abortion pill is currently marketed only in France, Britain and Sweden. The pill has also stirred controversy in Germany, where some politicians have called for Hoechst to begin marketing it.

The company followed a policy of introducing RU-486 only if a nation's government expressly asked it to.

"At the moment we have such an application from Switzerland but not from Germany," a spokeswoman for Roussel Uclaf said in Paris.

She added that Sakiz will follow the same launch policy that Hoechst used.

As a result of the transfer, Roussel Uclaf will stop manufacturing, marketing and distributing the drug.

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