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Sunnier outlook

Despite early clouds and world-weariness, industry left the EFPIA assembly in positive mood

Illustration of hot-air balloon branded with 'Pharma' Seville, southwest Spain, capital of Andalusia; venue for European pharmaceutical industry's annual get together, the EFPIA General Assembly 2009. Sunshine and fresh air were perhaps just what the doctor would have ordered for pharma, as a reward for the pressures of a tough year.

It has been an unrelenting period for manufacturers. They have spent too much of the last few months blinking in the fierce spotlight of European politics. On one front, the industry has been defending its reputation from a European Commission sector inquiry into apparently falling levels of innovation and suggestions of delays to the speed of generic introduction. On another front, it has been fighting its corner in debates over changes fundamental to the industry's future – a review of animal welfare legislation and the Commission's proposals on harmonising information to patients.

To be fair, none of these areas played naturally to the industry's populist side. If one could have picked topics where pharma's opponents were likely to congregate and be at their most shrill, these would probably have come out on top.

With much weighing on its collective mind, the industry was not in celebratory mood and – given Seville's merited reputation as Spain's party city – the potential for culture clash was substantial. Fortunately both sides took the invasion in their respective strides. The industry was even encouraged to display its presence in landmarks as famous and historic as the Alcazar Palace, converting the Moorish courtyard into a rather splendid dining area.

Yet relaxation and reflection was not an option for attendees; the global financial crisis, having absorbed inordinate amounts of taxpayers' money to support failing industries, is casting a growing shadow. The more positive image of the industry as one of the few large-scale sectors capable of contributing a sizeable chunk of tax to the economy could now leave it vulnerable. The industry runs the risk of being squeezed as part of cost-containment measures while simultaneously being expected to contribute to the tax-take needed to pay back current government deficits.

It was against this backdrop that the Assembly opened. Initial omens were not good, with EFPIA's Director General Brian Ager prevented from travelling with an inopportune back injury.

However the pharma industry is nothing if not robust, and when business proper commenced it chose to tackle its challenges head-on. The main conference theme – under the banner of "Fostering Health" – set out to examine how industry and governments could work together to ensure a healthy population at a time when cost containment is a reality for all sectors.

The Assembly pulled together an august panel to examine options and consequences and offer potential solutions. EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou, Spanish General Secretary for Health José Martínez Olmos, Dr Ian Banks, President of the European Men's Health Forum, Melody Ross, Director of The Active Citizenship Network and economist Peter Cornelius all gave their input. Almirall Chairman and CEO, Dr Jorge Gallardo represented industry, with Arthur Higgins, CEO of Bayer Healthcare and President of EFPIA provided the debate summary.

Facing up to the issue of an ageing European population, the panel tried admirably to square the circle: the pressing need to invest in creating a healthy workforce at a time when it seems least affordable. The conclusion was that whatever the difficulties, this is what Europe needed. Achieving this balance would clearly take time and demand considerable debate.

Promising mood
The topic that was not discussed during the panel session – reflecting the sensitivities of having Madame Commissioner Vassiliou present – was the Commission's pharmaceutical sector inquiry.

Yet outside the main debate, and among the robust media contingent, it was a subject that was being raised and addressed. Encouraged by the debate, the industry was willing to discuss the subject more frankly. In a dedicated journalist briefing, industry representatives redressed some of the more outlandish claims visited on them by November's preliminary report. This had suggested that the industry had adopted sharp practices, something they were more than happy to rebut. There was a clear spring in the step now, and a sense of direction that Christopher Columbus – who is laid to rest in Seville Cathedral – would have admired.

The President's closing speech and subsequent press conference reflected an improving mood. Whether softened by the earlier briefing, or mellowed by the Andalusian sun, questions to Mr Higgins were broadly forward looking, and offered some real opportunity for aspirational thinking.

The earlier clouds and fatigue now seemed more distant, and the parting mood was promising. Next year's general assembly will be in the UK, possibly against a backdrop of a national election. By that time, many of the challenges facing the industry will have been and gone, no doubt to be replaced by new ones; the industry rarely has its troubles to seek. Therefore, they may look back on the 2009 assembly with more than a little nostalgia. The memories of Seville will be positive and, with a fair wind, delegates may return home in a mood more in tune with the spirit of this city.

The Author
Colin Mackay is director, communication and partnerships at EFPIA
To comment on this article, email pme@pmlive.com

11th August 2009

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