Drugs incentives have saved lives in Europe

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV.COM Ltd.

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Drug incentives have contributed to developing, among other things, a therapy for HIV patients. [Shutterstock]

Without strong incentives to spur continued investment in medical innovation, we cannot hope to ensure the sustainability of European healthcare systems and fulfil the promise of our great union, writes Jan Fischer.

Jan Fischer is former prime minister of the Czech Republic

When European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker put jobs, growth and investment at the top of the Commission’s list of priorities three years ago, it was music to the ears of many communities across the continent struggling with low growth and high unemployment.

But now the Commission charged with delivering on that priority has launched a troubling review that could weaken proven protections and incentives which are driving investment in one of the most competitive sectors of the European economy and contributing to better health outcomes worldwide.

Initiated by the Council Conclusions of June 2016 under the Dutch Presidency, the review looks at intellectual property protections and targeted incentives that promote discovery of new medicines. Without careful hands at the wheel, it could threaten future treatments and cures – just when patients need them most.

As any economist could tell you, reducing incentives only lowers the risk people are willing to take. We need inventors to take more risks to discover the next generation of medical innovations. We need to recognize the critical role intellectual property protections play in enabling progress and expand on past success.

Protecting patents and providing limited incentives for medicines designed to treat children and rare diseases is working for patients. Research and development incentives for pediatric treatments have yielded more than 1,800 new medicines to date, expanding treatment options for children with juvenile arthritis and other painful conditions.

Thanks to similar rare disease incentives introduced in Europe in 2000, we’ve had 136 medicines approved by the European Medicines Agency – up from just eight before the turn of the century. These treatments offer new hope for people suffering debilitating and often terminal diseases like cystic fibrosis and heart disease.

These gains are part of a larger medical innovation success story that has played out across our region and around the world. Over the past half-century, European life expectancy has risen by nearly a decade. Two out of every three people diagnosed with cancer today are still alive after five years.

HIV has been transformed from a death sentence in the 1990s to a manageable disease today. And more than 90% of Hepatitis C cases can be cured with a 12-week course of medicine. Such tremendous advances have been made possible because of incentives for medical innovation – not despite them.

Weakening incentives for medical innovation won’t help get new medicines into the hands of the people who need them most. It will, however, undermine current efforts to expand the arsenal of weapons that can help us fend against disease – including the more than 7,000 new treatments currently in development worldwide.

As a former government minister, I know that while public authorities understand these dynamics, political expediency often tempts them to seek quick fixes and simplistic solutions. But the economics do not favour such an approach. Europeans are living longer and costs from chronic disease are skyrocketing.

At the same time, the science of medical innovation is becoming more complex – for example with the advent of biologic treatments made from patients’ own cells. More time and resources are needed to run clinical trials and obtain regulatory approval for these treatments, pushing development lead times back and increasing the risk for investors.

Without strong incentives to spur continued investment in medical innovation, we cannot hope to ensure the sustainability of European healthcare systems and fulfil the promise of our great union. We need more innovation, not less.

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