European Union officials said unless member countries quicklydevelop the economic, legal and ethical framework to fosterbiotechnology business development, the continent is in danger ofbecoming merely a market rather than a major contributor tobiopharmaceutical innovation.

Concerns that the U.S. industry is stampeding its competition inEurope were voiced recently at the first informal meeting of theEuropean Commission, European Council and European Parliamentdevoted exclusively to biotechnology.

About 350 people attended the huge "brain storming session" Jan. 11,1996, in Brussels, and no formal conclusions were reached.

Maurice Lex, a scientific administrator with the EuropeanCommission's science, research and development center, toldBioWorld International participants agreed future sessions should beheld and that representatives from industry and consumer groupsshould be included.

What did emerge from the meeting was a sense of urgency in respectto countering the U.S. lead in biotechnology patents, investment anddrug development.

Although European Union researchers have kept pace in scientificprogress, they have not experienced the entrepreneurial successes oftheir American counterparts.

Participants noted if a new business climate is not forthcoming withinthe next 10 years, Europe is in danger of falling hopelessly behind theU.S. and Japan in biotechnology drug development.

Economic figures provided by the European Commission show thecontinent has 485 biotechnology companies vs. 1,300 in the U.S.Americans have 65 percent of the biotechnology patents worldwidecompared with 15 percent in Europe.

Europe also is lagging behind in public and private investment inbiotechnology. Nearly four times as much money is funneled intoresearch and development in the U.S. About ECU 2.2 billion areinvested annually in Europe while in the U.S. more than ECU 7billion are funneled into research and development yearly.

Other European Commission figures reveal that between 1986 and1994, European Union-based firms invested ECU 2.8 billion in U.S.biotechnology and another ECU 600,000 in Japan.

The biotechnology industry in Europe accounts for ECU 450 billion,or 9 percent, of the European Community's gross national product.

In a statement from the Jan. 11 meeting, European Commissionofficials said, "Given biotechnology's potential and its likely impacton employment, the challenge for the European Union is to ensurethat output, employment and investment take place in the EuropeanUnion, rather than the European Union becoming just a market."

Product regulatory differences among European Union countries,including those relating to patent protection, also were highlighted astroublesome for business development.

The three groups also recognized the need for more public discussionon ethical issues raised by biotechnology, such as gene discoveriesand the progress of gene therapy.

In particular the groups were urged to address what were described as"vague fears" that the "value of the human being, founded on itsgenetic constitution, may no longer be established."

Better public education was offered as one strategy for allaying suchfears. On another ethical issue, it was recommended that theEuropean Union strongly oppose research on the human embryo.

Among biotechnology-related proposals currently under review bythe European Commission are efforts to eliminate regulatoryredundancies among member countries and implementation of rulesregarding genetically engineered foods. n

-- Charles Craig

(c) 1997 American Health Consultants. All rights reserved.