PharmExec Blog

Is Hungary Hungry Enough for Pharma?

Hungary has taken over the chair of the EU Council, but European pharma is unlikely to gain much from its surface enthusiam, writes Reflector.

A new, young, and supposedly business-friendly democracy has swung into European action this month. Hungary, one of the most recent countries to join the European Union, took over the chair of the Council of the EU at the start of 2011. It will have a crucial influence on what ministers from the 27 EU member states discuss over the next six months.

Its just-released programme purports to give new impetus to innovation as a central feature of European economic recovery and growth. The 56 pages of promises are full of references to ensuring competitiveness in a globalised world, to the merits of research, to the need to enhance education and training – and to the Europe2020 strategy cooked up last year as branding for a concerted EU bid for renewed growth and competitiveness. It is also planning for EU leaders to hold “a substantial debate on innovation” at their summit in early February.

“Europe offers unique opportunities for developing and distributing new technologies,” the Hungarian programme trills.

But what does it offer of interest to the pharmaceutical sector? Not much, is the answer.

There is a broad generalization about “ensuring the security of our citizens in the widest possible sense — taking into consideration private, economic, environmental, medical and other issues.”

But the only ambition specific to the pharma industry is that the new presidency “will seek to reach a positive outcome regarding the draft legislation on information to patients on medicinal products.”

While this may have the merit of tidiness, in wrapping up a debate that has been going on sporadically for two years, it is unlikely to bring any improvements to the operating conditions for the innovative pharma sector.

On the contrary, it is likely to compound the largely negative perception of the industry in political circles and among the public. The discussions that have taken place in the European parliament on this proposal have revealed strong hostility to the industry, based on suspicions that drug firms are manipulating patients and want more freedom to do so.  Worse, the European health commissioner, John Dalli, has made clear that in finalising the new rules, “We must ask what information patients need, not what information industry wants to provide”. It was important, he told the European parliament, that “we ensure we do not drift into advertising.”

On the wider health agenda, the Hungarian programme evokes the problem of scarcity resources and emphasises the need for “evidence-based decision-making and appropriate tools for monitoring outcomes”. This carries an uncomfortable echo of a sequence of reports and discussions over recent weeks among EU ministers, almost entirely focused on containing healthcare expenditure, and particularly on getting better value for money spent on medicines. The ruling consensus in European political circles appears increasingly to be that drugs are expensive and often wasteful, and that much more attention should be devoted to keeping down their costs than to stimulating innovation and rewarding their success in combating disease and maintaining health.

The only small relief offered by the Hungarian plans is the stress on the need for a streamlined patent law in Europe, to make it easier and cheaper for innovators to protect inventions. It promises to support recent moves to put this into effect among a core group of member states, describing patent protection as “a fundamentally important and also a symbolic element for the EU single market”. But this is a slender initiative which is still years, at best, from realization.

Elsewhere, commitments to boosting innovation — for pharma or for industry in general — remain little more than rhetoric. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government’s own domestic legislative activity has over recent weeks significantly undermined any claims to champion liberal economic values. The country has followed up a raid on private pension funds with a special tax on foreign banks, and is now pushing ahead with a law to control the media that is more redolent of its communist past than its newfound European prominence. So as pharmaceutical executives everywhere in the world look for good news at the start of the new year, Hungary’s turn in the EU chair may not offer quite the rosy prospects that will gladden their hearts with tidings of great joy.

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