Recent crises have highlighted the critical need for Europe to secure and strengthen its position as leader in medical innovation. As the European Commission works on the review of the Pharmaceutical Regulation, we need to ensure Europe has the right environment to bring the next generation of treatments to patients. The challenge for the coming decades is not if medical innovation will happen but where it will happen. This article is part of a series explaining that where innovation happens matters for patients, health care systems, the research community, jobs and the economy.
For most of the previous century, Europe was the world’s engine room for pharmaceutical innovation. New treatments for cancer, cardiovascular diseases, infectious diseases and neurological conditions were first discovered, developed and delivered in Europe. Sadly, that is no longer the case: 25 years ago, every second new treatment came from Europe, now it is less than every fifth.
As the EU reviews its pharmaceutical policy framework, now is the moment to initiate the turnaround, restoring Europe’s position as a leader in the discovery, development and delivery of new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines. Spearheading transformative innovation is not a matter of prestige. It is life-changing for our patients, in need of novel and best-in-class treatments.
The care for patients is what drives our industry. Innovation is not an abstract concept. It means new diagnostics, treatments and vaccines that can transform the lives of people and protect entire populations. Patient prospects are better in centers of research and development. For diseases such as cancer, clinical research constitutes an important route for patients who cannot be helped with conventional therapies. The proximity to research centers gives them a higher chance to get access to the latest innovation in cancer care, for example via clinical trials. Unfortunately, the share of global clinical trial activity in Europe is in decline.
To change that, Europe needs a vibrant and well-connected research ecosystem that will not only improve patient care, drive economic performance and resilience, but also further benefit the efficiency of health care systems. The scientific foundation is there: 20.8 percent of the world’s scientific publications come from European researchers, putting Europe behind China (20.9 percent) but ahead of the U.S. (16.9 percent). European policymakers have the opportunity to create the right framework to turn those academic achievements into applied innovations that reach the patients, re-establish Europe as a leader, and not least strengthen Europe’s independence. Otherwise, Europe will further lose ground. And that at a time where open strategic autonomy ranks high on the agenda.
As Boehringer Ingelheim, we are consciously leveraging our strong European roots and integration into the European scientific community. We have nurtured a collaborative approach across the research value chain, starting in the early days of our 137-year history. Our research department was founded in 1917 at the advice of the German chemist and Nobel Prize laurate Heinrich Wieland. Today our research footprint is global, while the majority of people and over 60 percent of R&D budgets are allocated in Europe.
A thriving ecosystem of academic, SME and research communities enables the detection and addressing of emerging health threats. Take, for example, antimicrobial resistance (AMR). AMR kills about 700,000 people globally every year and by 2050, could result in 10 million worldwide deaths, making it potentially deadlier than cancer. Today, we rely on the availability of effective antibiotics to enable everything from wisdom tooth extractions to organ transplantation to cancer chemotherapy. Yet no new antibiotics have been developed in the past 35 years. We need an urgent collective effort to combat this emerging threat. Industry has taken the initiative. Boehringer Ingelheim has joined other companies in the AMR Action Fund, that has committed more than $1 billion to bring new, effective drugs to market. However, there is no viable antibiotic market that would support the level of investments needed. And despite the huge societal costs of AMR, our health care systems do not recognize the value of new antibiotics. This requires political will and action.
A number of EU member countries have life-science strategies in place, including ambitious investment targets. The upcoming pharma review package gives the EU a unique opportunity to overcome serious barriers for the innovative strength of the European health care sector. This includes, for example, a strong protection of intellectual property for researchers, or an innovation-friendly and consistent approach toward access to innovative drugs for patients.
As a consequence, we will see strong effects also on European economies. The activities of pharmaceutical companies already contribute over €100 billion directly to the EU economy, with an additional €106 billion provided through the supply chain and employee spending. It represents the highest contribution to the EU trade balance of any high-tech sector.
The choices that European policymakers make today will define our innovation future. All stakeholders should be ready to work together to address access issues in an innovative way, while safeguarding Europe’s ability to discover, develop and deliver the next generations of treatments.
The world’s collective response to the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us how important rapid innovation, cooperation and decisiveness is. We have done it. We can do it again, regaining control in the world’s engine room of innovation! We hold it in our own hands. We owe this to the many patients who will be helped by new treatments and medicines.