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Can the EU's pharmaceutical strategy make Europe a leader in health?

Health & healthcare / EPC FLASH ANALYSIS
Elizabeth Kuiper

Date: 24/05/0023
Last month, the EU’s Pharmaceutical Strategy was finally endorsed by the College of Commissioners. After a delay of several months, the file wound up on the desk of the European Commission President herself after CEOs of pharmaceutical companies had complained to heads of state about the alleged detrimental impact of the proposal. It seems that even a global pandemic wasn’t sufficient to ensure the Commission hierarchy was internally aware of this proposal's potential implications and probably viewed it as just another technical piece of legislation.

Following the announcement of the European Parliament rapporteurs last week, it is time to take a closer look at the strategic importance of the strategy and how it could contribute to reducing the EU’s dependency on other regions of the world.

The debate about the EU’s strategic autonomy has been at the fore for some time, aggravated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The EU’s Pharmaceutical Strategy, therefore, addresses the need to diversify and secure supply chains and the importance of supporting the competitiveness, innovation, and sustainability of the EU’s pharmaceutical industry.

Industry stakeholders have expressed concerns about the proposal, arguing that it will erode the EU’s intellectual property system, which is instrumental in discovering new treatments and vaccines. In addition, they point out that China is on the rise when prioritising biopharmaceuticals and vaccines. For a long time, the country has heavily focused on generics, but in the last decade, it upped the ante and has become much stronger in innovative manufacturing technologies.

However, China’s position vis-à-vis innovation isn’t as straightforward as many suggest. Whereas the country has strengthened IP provisions to attract pharmaceutical companies to invest in China, to the disappointment of the industry, it eventually expressed its support at the global level for the much-contested IP waiver in the context of WTO discussions about waiving IP rights for COVID-19 vaccines.

The development of the mRNA vaccine has shown the flourishing scientific environment in the EU, with China and Russia underperforming in terms of scientific innovation and rigour. According to the European Patent Office (EPO), patent activity in pharmaceuticals (+6.9%) and biotechnology (+6.6%) shows increased recent investment in vaccines and other areas of healthcare.

The Versailles Declaration adopted in March 2022 expresses the ambition to “make Europe a leader in biomedicines”. Clearly, the EU’s Pharmaceutical Strategy should be seen as a tool to make this happen. It is more than just another piece of public health policy, and the Commission is advised to coordinate accordingly and ensure the relevant services are involved in future negotiations on the proposal.

Elizabeth Kuiper is an Associate Director and Head of the Social Europe and Well-Being programme at the European Policy Centre.

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