BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - European Union ministers are meeting in Brussels this week to offer moral support to biotechnology, but the European biotech industry is increasingly skeptical, seeking deeds rather than words.

The EU's Competitiveness Council has two important subjects on its agenda: the progress on the EU's strategy to boost biotechnology, and the proposal for a simplified EU patent. Pro-biotech ministers are hoping that a strong message of endorsement for biotechnology will emerge from the meeting, and that agreement can be reached in principle to finally put in place the so-called Community Patent.

On the patent, a petition to ministers signed by more than 300 CEOs and research directors from some of Europe's most innovative industries is asking ministers to agree to "a single patent for a single market."

"We are calling on EU ministers to support a Community Patent, which provides a patent system that is secure, cost-effective and simple to obtain," said Johan Vanhemelrijck, secretary general of EuropaBio.

But on the eve of the meeting, EuropaBio - which already had written off the latest EU biotech strategy paper as "more of the same" - raised questions. (See BioWorld International, April 28, 2004.)

"I would ask ministers to be consistent," Venhemelrijck said. "Member states should stop the internal discord; the EU should show solidarity with innovation both in words and in deeds."

Meanwhile, in the run-up to the meeting of ministers, national biotechnology industry associations across Europe have been expressing their concerns over the efficacy of the EU's gestures toward biotechnology support. Recent changes to EU rules on technology transfer "will result in increased uncertainty and additional bureaucracy and could reduce the competitiveness of the European bioscience sector and its ability to deliver new treatments for the many diseases that still have no cure," said Aisling Burnand, CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association, last week. That "flies in the face" of EU claims to be supporting biotechnology, he added.

Also last week, Ricardo Gent, managing director of the German Deutsche Industrievereinigung Biotechnologie, warned that the EU biotech strategy is failing because the member states still are not transposing EU rules into national legislation. He called for more EU influence to be brought to bear on member states to implement the directives on GMOs and biotech patents.

Rob Janssen, managing director of the Netherlands' Biotech Industry Association, NIABA, said that "if Europe does not improve its climate radically and quickly, the backlog to the rest of the world will become insurmountable."

Matt Moran, director of the Irish Biotech Industry Association, said Europe needs "a consistent approach to regulation, prioritization of commercialization of research and strong support for the sector as a whole - otherwise Europe is in danger of becoming a poor third in the biotech race."

There are plenty of constructive ideas coming out of the European biotech industry - and a growing resentment at the consistent failure to put them into practice.

"We want ministers to improve Europe's competitiveness by working toward introducing tax and social charge exemptions for young innovative companies in a way similar to the pioneering effort made by France," said Per Vretblad, a manager of Sweden's BioteknikForum.

The formula proposed by Jacques Viseur, secretary general of the Belgian Biotechnology Association, is that EU member states "should reduce taxes and barriers and let innovative companies grow and enter the market." And Hans Nyctellius, president of SwedenBio, urged ministers "to improve R&D funding considerably in medicine and biotechnology and make framework research programs more accessible to smaller firms."