Pharma Bids for European Funding in New Research Program

Jul 31, 2013

The ink is not yet dry on the European Union's Horizon 2020 agreement to invest some €70 billion ($92 billion) in research over the next seven years, and already contenders for funding are jostling for attention as they prepare their bids. Some of the sharpest elbows are wielded by pharmaceutical organizations, because a large portion of the budget is reserved for life sciences, and the biggest share of that is likely to go to the fittest and fastest in the fray.

Europe's biggest drug industry association, the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, scored something of a coup by having breakfast with the president of the European Commission on the very day that the program proposal was agreed in mid-July. EFPIA has won support from the commission (and possibly €1.5 billion) for a new and improved version of the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), its public-private partnership with the European Union on early-stage collaborative research. At a special launch ceremony on the upper floors of the commission's headquarters in Brussels, Joe Jimenez, CEO of Novartis and vice-president of EFPIA, announced that industry would match this with €1.5 billion in cash and kind.

Others have moved almost as swiftly to press their case for funding. Before July was out, the European Alliance for Personalized Medicine had announced a major conference in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on "Horizon 2020 and the Future of European Research," amounting to a naked pitch for support for this coalition's ambitions to develop the right treatment for the right patient at the right time. Its members—industry, academics and patient groups—also favor public/private collaborations as "a necessary condition to succeed where individual stakeholders' efforts have failed or were delayed."

A markedly different approach to utilizing the life sciences budget is being advocated by civil society organizations that are less interested in industry success and, they claim, more interested in patients. Arguing for wider access to medicines, the European Public Health Alliance and its partners, who include Doctors of the World and Health Action International—Europe, are calling for research and innovation that is "needs-driven" and "based on social criteria." The objective, they say, should be "affordable access to R&D outcomes" that can "bring medicines prices down." This is central, they argue, to providing an adequate response to the "dreadful situation faced by millions in Europe regarding access to medicines and the dire health outcomes that result."

Reaching agreement on Horizon 2020 had been one of the priorities that the Irish government had set for its six-month stint in the chair of the European Union in the first half of this year. "It will boost innovation, jobs, and growth," said Ireland's research minister, Sean Sherlock, as he emerged triumphant from the round of talks that clinched the deal. Until the last minute, and through six months of laborious negotiations, questions remained over the size, scope, and emphasis of the program, caught in crossfire from national governments, political parties, and diverse lobbies from science, industry, and consumer and environmental organizations. At the end of 2012, the program looked as if it might be shredded as the austerity-hit European Union battled over cuts in its long-term budget. But the bulk of the funding was ring-fenced, after urgent pleas from Nobel prizewinners, and industry groupings across Europe representing everything from steelmakers to aviation.