BioWorld International Correspondent

BRUSSELS, Belgium The European Union has been quick to claim part of the credit for two recent biotechnology breakthroughs.

After the publication in the Feb. 21 issue of Nature of the analysis of the genome of fission yeast, European Research Commissioner Philippe Busquin immediately pointed out that the international project was “largely funded through a EUR6.9 million EU grant,” and was the result of the joint effort of 13 European laboratories led by the Wellcome Trust Sanger Institute, which sequenced two-thirds of the genome and did the gene predictions and annotation for all of the sequence. The second phase of the sequencing was carried out by a European consortium led by the Sanger Institute, and consisting of major European laboratories.

“Europe has taken the leading role in this research through networking of the best,” he said. The commissioner described this type of research as “a typical example of the continuing European effort in the area,” adding that the European Commission plans to allocate EUR2.2 billion to genomics and biotechnology for health in its forthcoming research program for 2002-2006.

And on Feb. 25, Busquin again laid an EU claim to the new diagnostic technique for Ebola fever, based on the detection of viral genomes in the blood of the person afflicted. In the current epidemic context of Ebola fever in Gabon, this simplified test is performing well and providing the same level of sensitivity as the standard test, while allowing patients to be checked far more quickly for the infection, he said. The aim of the cooperation is to achieve mass production of the test once the evaluation is finished. The EU has provided around $500,000 since 1998 for the project, which involves the Centre de Recherche Mérieux-Pasteur in Lyon, France, and other laboratories in Germany, the Netherlands, Gabon and Senegal.

Commission Proposes New Rules On GMOs

The European Commission is proposing new rules on cross-border movements of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), with the aim of protecting biodiversity at an international level. The new rules would impose safeguards on the transfer, handling and use of GMOs, with a special focus on developing countries.

They put into effect the United Nations’ January 2000 Cartagena Protocol on Biosafety, which above all gives developing countries the necessary information and the power to decide which GMOs they want to receive. In parallel, the Commission also is preparing the legal instruments for the EU to formally ratify the protocol. The new rules will complement existing EU legislation on biotechnology, mainly in the field of exporter obligations and information sharing at the international level, but will entail no modifications to the existing legal framework on GMOs.

The package introduces a notification obligation for exports of GMOs intended for deliberate release into the environment, and requires the EU to provide information at the international level on EU practices, legislation and decisions on GMOs. It also sets rules for identification of GMOs for exports in line with the latest EU developments on labeling and traceability.

EU Group Prepares Competitiveness Proposal

The EU’s “G10” group of top-level advisers agreed to recommendations Tuesday on how to boost European pharmaceutical industry competitiveness with higher prices, without bankrupting Europe’s public health agencies that pay for most medicines.

The group said its proposals constitute “an ambitious framework for action,” which will stimulate innovation and strengthen the EU science base, produce better information for patients, and improve the workings of the pharmaceuticals market. It formally will present its proposals to European Commission President Romano Prodi in early May, but initial signs are that the group has ducked the key issue of liberalizing prices for most prescription medicines, which has long been the demand from innovative companies in Europe’s pharmaceutical sector.