BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - Another new strategy for Europe's drug industry - closely focused on biotechnology - won only qualified praise from senior European pharmaceutical executives.

The plans were announced June 1 by Günther Verheugen, vice president of the European Commission. They include renewed discussions for boosting innovation, speeding market access and easing EU drug prices. But leading industry figures immediately suggested the initiative was too little, and possibly too late.

Speaking at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations meeting in Brussels, Verheugen said he aimed to re-instate Europe as "the natural home for pharmaceutical innovation." He promised a "framework to support innovation in specialist areas," covering rare diseases and pediatric medicines, alongside a clear regulatory framework for gene therapy, cell therapies and tissue engineering. He promised support not only for biotechnology, but also for ensuring that scientific output is of use to the industry.

He admitted that the most recent EU attempt at agreeing on a framework - in the so-called G10 group of ministers, officials and health care professionals - had done little more than start a debate, and now "it is time to move on." He would like to see a doubling of EU research spending for life sciences and biotech, new technology platforms focused on innovative medicines, new support for smaller high-tech firms, a risk-capital instrument for innovative companies and moves toward more flexibility in drug pricing.

But there is skepticism in the industry over oft-repeated EU promises of a better tomorrow. Tom McKillop, CEO of AstraZeneca plc, of London, voiced concerns about the scope for easier pricing rules, and the likely speed of progress. He reminded Verheugen that Europe still lags the competition in supporting pharmaceutical research - the U.S. spends five times the EU in government research funding. Recent moves on orphan drugs and pediatric medicines are welcome but late by comparison with the U.S., said McKillop, and "a lot of talk and regulation may not be the right solution to boost European innovation."

Franz Humer, EFPIA president and CEO of F. Hoffmann-La Roche Ltd., underlined that at present, Europe does not adequately reward innovation, while price controls and "short-sighted, misguided or ill-conceived policies" in EU member states are making the situation worse. The U.S. is consolidating its dominance as a site for pharmaceutical research, leading to "a mass exodus of Europe's researchers," despite Europe's well-intentioned efforts to reduce the gap in high value-added sectors such as biotechnology, his aides added.

And Jean-François Dehecq, chairman and CEO of Sanofi-Aventis Group, of Paris, was even more trenchant. Lamenting the lack of intellectual property protection in Europe, and the persistent delays of many member states in granting market access to new medicines, he remarked: "That's what the EU should be doing instead of making speeches. This would make an improvement in the daily lives of Europe's citizens."