BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium - The European Union Council of Ministers on Monday approved plans to boost pharmaceutical industry competitiveness. Industry ministers from the 15 member states (and from the 10 member states due to join in May) backed the thinking set out by officials in the European Commission in July on how to promote an innovative drugs industry.

Central to the plan is a recognition of "the vital role played by the pharmaceutical industry in the industrial, health and biotechnology sectors." It also highlights the need to integrate public and private research and to increase cooperation between member states.

The plan addresses, too, the burning question for EU drug innovators of easing the current national price and reimbursement controls on medicines in Europe - but only timidly. It "invites member states to consider the Commission proposals concerning introduction of more price competition" and urges the Commission "to launch an EU-wide reflection on different approaches to pharmaceutical pricing and reimbursement."

And, like the blueprint that emerged in July from Commission officials, after more than a year's reflection in the "G10" group of government and industry experts, the plan adopted by ministers is something of a mixed message. It talks of promoting innovation in the same breath as reinforcing competitiveness of the generic and nonprescription medicines sectors.

During the meeting of ministers, senior Commission officials also gave a reminder to member states of the need for concrete national action to give effect to the EU's already-agreed strategy on biotechnology and life sciences. According to the Commission, diverging national biotechnology policies in the EU "could seriously hamper the effectiveness and consistency of the EU strategy in this field."

An aide to Erkki Liikanen, the European commissioner responsible for industry, told BioWorld International that while progress has been made in the adoption of a new EU research program and in the EU regulatory framework for GMOs, "others are suffering from serious delays." One of the key concerns is that "member states are slow in transposing biotechnology patents legislation. Delays increase the risk of failing to meet in the area of life sciences and biotechnology the EU's targets of making Europe the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world." What the Commission wants member states to do is to "take decisive action and make concrete commitments" on providing more research and financial resources, and to complete the system for protecting intellectual property rights.

Other specific goals being urged by the Commission at the meeting of ministers included further development of a European risk capital/venture capital market, and improving the environment for the development of new technologies.

At the same time, ministers had a further discussion on how to manage EU funding of research into human embryonic stem cells. A year ago, they agreed to defer a decision on whether the EU should back such research, and to maintain a temporary moratorium on financing such activities until the EU had a clearer ethical consensus. Now the plan is to limit EU funding for research into the derivation of new stem cells. Only projects that pass a rigorous scientific peer review and an ethical review will qualify - and each member state can veto participation if it objects to stem cell research on the grounds of national ethics.