BRUSSELS, Belgium ¿ The flurry of European Union meetings devoted to biotechnology and pharmaceuticals in Brussels last week produced some bold statements from senior officials of the need to frame policy, but rather less in terms of policy decisions themselves.
In the concluding minutes of the large-scale conference on life sciences and biotechnology, one of the European Commissioners most intensely involved in the subject, Franz Fischler, said: ¿It is necessary to actively shape policy in the area of biotechnology, instead of adopting a wait and see¿ approach. We want to take a proactive stance and explain what benefits biotech can bring to the people.¿
But the week¿s numerous encounters in Brussels on subjects ranging from high-technology medicines to funding research amounted to little more than a further stage in preparing for action. The Sept. 27-28 conference, with 40 speakers and more than 400 participants, produced numerous reactions to the European Commission¿s recent consultation document on biotechnology and some animated discussions in workshop sessions, all of which were seen by EU officials as confirming the high level of public interest. But while the Commission publicly insisted ¿Europe cannot miss the opportunity that biotechnology offers,¿ and claimed the debate ¿is central to the future evolution of new technologies,¿ it showed few signs of decisive action.
Instead of announcing any new policy initiatives, the Commission said it was ¿calling on all stakeholders to pronounce themselves on the main issues related to this question,¿ because ¿the European Commission wants to listen to all the stakeholders concerned before heading toward new directions.¿ The Commission will not present its policy document on life sciences and biotechnology until the end of this year. ¿The stakeholder input that we received yesterday and today will be important in preparing this document. I am convinced that a broad and continuous stakeholder consultation process is a prerequisite for success on this important issue,¿ Fischler said at the end of the meeting.
In his pronouncements on the subject during the week, Commission President Romano Prodi displayed the same blend of determination to boost biotechnology but not to offend the public. He said, ¿It is of strategic and long-term importance that Europe master the new frontier technologies, in particular the life sciences and biotechnology, and use them for the benefit of society.
¿Biotechnologies and life sciences will be major factors in driving technological and economical progress in the 21st century, which is why Europe needs a sound strategy to harness this new potential and to tackle the challenges associated with ethical preoccupations,¿ he said.
But he also said, ¿It would be a mistake and contrary to my views on good political governance to develop such a strategy above the heads of the citizen.¿
Amid the wide-ranging discussions of the politics, ethics and social implications of biotechnology during the week, a more concrete message emerged from EuropaBio, the European bioindustry association, on the issues that most affect the competitiveness and business development of smaller European biotechnology firms. It said the single most important constraint on a developing company is the lack of availability of skilled technical and scientific staff and experienced entrepreneurial managers. A new survey conducted by EuropaBio showed 65.2 percent of companies cite this as their key problem. Next came a lack of internal financial resources for research and development (53.6 percent), difficulties in patenting biotechnological inventions due to the costs (52.7 percent) and a lack of tax incentives for start-ups and investors in the European Union (52.1 percent).
As most small biotechnology companies are in the early phase of development, regulatory issues came next on the priority list. The two most important difficulties were the cumbersome administrative procedures (37.7 percent) and insufficient flexibility for technical adaptation of EU rules (31.9 percent). In other areas, such as manufacturing, quality control/assurance was cited as the most important issue.
The survey, conducted with the assistance of experts from EU countries, was co-funded by the European Commission under its framework program for research and technological development, and currently covers 69 companies in 10 EU countries. A final report covering all 15 member states will be released by the end of the year.
Meanwhile, in the face of growing EU pressure for regulation of genetic testing, the European pharmaceutical industry is trying to keep the options open for development of new techniques. On Sept. 24 it won some public backing for its call to avoid the imposition of premature restrictions, when European patients¿ organizations took part in a workshop with the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, and set out the arguments for EU officials.