The clock is ticking on Europe’s competitiveness: It’s time medical innovation is recognised for its strategic contribution to the EU’s competitiveness.

We are at a critical juncture for the future of health in Europe, where the decisions we make today will have consequences for decades to come. With the upcoming election of a new European Parliament, a new institutional cycle approaching, and critical legislative discussions ongoing, we have a unique opportunity to shape an EU policy framework that places Europe back at the forefront of medical discovery. A framework that enables patients to access treatments that will not only change their prognosis, but may be able to cure them entirely.

Stefan Woxström, Senior Vice President, Europe & Canada, AstraZeneca.

Over the past five years, the EU has laid the foundations for healthcare transformation with the most ambitious health policy agenda seen to date. Novel initiatives such as the European Health Union, the European Health Data Space, the Pharmaceutical Strategy for Europe, and the EU4Health Programme were launched. The mandate and budget of the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) increased, and the Health Emergency and Response Authority (HERA) was created. Cancer became a flagship political priority resulting in the creation of Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan (EBCP) – the most ambitious disease action plan at EU level – and the first with such political backing. 

Yet, as we look ahead to the next EU political cycle, the trajectory for healthcare in Europe looks a lot less clear. Europe’s life science sector still stands as a powerhouse of innovation and linchpin of Europe’s economic growth and prosperity, (unlike in the US where the top companies are in tech), as six of the top 11 European companies by market capitalisation are in pharmaceuticals.

However, Europe’s life sciences sector’s competitive edge is under threat: R&D investment has dropped by 25% over the last two decades, resulting in a significant lag the US and China. A mere 1 in 5 new medicines now originates from Europe, compared to half just 25 years ago. The average time to access for innovative treatments across EU and European Economic Area (EEA) is as long as 517 days.  Challenging market conditions not only limit European patients’ access to potentially life-changing clinical trials and cutting-edge treatments, but also pose a threat to the continent’s industrial and economic autonomy.

Last week, the European Parliament adopted its negotiating position on the revision of the General Pharmaceutical Legislation, a once in two decades opportunity to modernise the pharmaceutical regulatory framework to keep pace with medical advancements, and foster future breakthroughs for patients. While the Parliament’s vote advocates promising amendments to the Commission’s original proposals, and supports much needed reforms to the regulatory review process, it regrettably endorsed a reduction of baseline regulatory data protection and orphan market exclusivity that innovators rely on to develop new medicines, including for the many people living with rare diseases who currently have no treatment option. The life sciences industry thrives on innovation, and R&D incentives play a pivotal role in fuelling this progress, especially considering competition from other global regions. Any weakening of this incentives framework will continue to spur an outflow of health investment from Europe, with potentially devastating consequences for patients, society, and the economy.

It’s clear that we need bold and decisive action to avert further decline and safeguard the future of healthcare in Europe. Firstly, this calls for a paradigm shift in healthcare delivery from ‘sick care to health care’. Health systems in Europe have long been focused on treating illnesses rather than preventing them, as evidenced by the EU average disease prevention spending of 2.8%. Bold political action to drive prevention and earlier intervention to tackle Europe’s major drivers of mortality and health costs – such as recent calls for a European Cardiovascular Plan – are critical to improve outcomes and free up capacity for delivery of high-quality care. 

Secondly, we need an ambitious European industrial strategy that recognizes the importance of the health and life sciences sector for Europe’s economic growth and competitiveness. At a time when European leaders are calling for a ‘new European competitiveness deal’, the European Commission last month launched targeted actions to boost biotechnology and manufacturing in Europe , highlighting the contribution of healthcare biotechnology to the region’s economy. While this is a welcome recognition of the importance of the sector, critical steps are needed to pave the way towards the introduction of an industrial strategy, supported by concrete policy plans in the next mandate.

Finally, healthcare requires an investment mindset that views health not as a cost driver, but as a growth asset. In fact, every Euro spent on public health in high-income countries is estimated to return 14 Euros to the economy. To generate such outcomes, the EU’s new Strategic Agenda must include health as a priority and put forward a framework that addresses the interconnection between healthcare sustainability and economic prosperity. Policies and initiatives targeting the health sector reverberate across multiple policy priorities (e.g. social, economic, environmental), and equally, breakthroughs in the healthcare sector (e.g. CRISPR, biomarkers) often lead to applications in other sectors. Conversely, regulation in other areas – as we have seen recently in the areas of digitalisation and sustainability policy – can play a significant role in shaping the healthcare landscape and ultimately patient access to care, whether intentional or unintended.  

The EU has the capacity to make a real difference in healthcare by leveraging its collective resources and competences, and meaningfully recognising and addressing the interplay between healthcare and its other strategic priorities. Future-proofing health systems and ensuring the long-term competitiveness of the EU’s life sciences sector, are mutually supportive goals that will pave the way towards a future where all Europeans have equal access to high-quality care, with Europe at the forefront of medical innovation.

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