EU money intended for underfunded public-benefit research such as preparing for a pandemic has been diverted by the pharmaceutical industry into areas where it can make more money, according to a scathing new report.
Officials in Brussels wanted to co-fund research that would have ensured the European Union (EU) was better prepared for a pandemic akin to the one we are experiencing today. But their partners, the big pharmaceutical companies, rejected the proposal, ensuring that taxpayer money would go instead into studies with more potential for commercial application. In short big-pharma lobbyists were allowed to steer billions of euros of public funds as they saw fit, a damning new report claims.
The target of the criticism is the Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI), a public-private partnership that was equally funded, between 2008 and 2020, by the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) lobbying group and the European Commission to the tune of 5.3 billion euros (US$5.8 billion). The money is supposed to go to areas of “unmet medical or social need,” but, in practice, corporate priorities dominate the decision-making, according to the non-governmental organization Corporate Observatory Europe (COE).
“We were outraged to find evidence that the pharmaceutical industry lobby EFPIA not only did not consider funding biopreparedness (ie, being ready for epidemics such as the one caused by the new coronavirus, COVID-19) … but opposed it being included in IMI’s work when the possibility was raised by the European Commission in 2017,” a new COE report said.
The rejected proposal would have directed money into refining computer simulations and the analysis of animal testing models, potentially speeding up regulatory approval of vaccines, according to the Guardian. But a spokeswoman for the IMI called the report “misleading”.
“The research proposed by the EC in the biopreparedness topic was small in scope,” she said. “IMI’s projects have contributed, directly or indirectly, to better prepare the research community for the current crisis, the Ebola+ programme or the ZAPI project.”
ZAPI, or the Zoonotic Anticipation and Preparedness Initiative, was launched in 2015 with a budget of 20 million euros (US$21.8 million) after the Ebola epidemic a year prior. The COE report said it exemplifies a pattern of “belated interventions when an epidemic is already underway,” much like this year’s emergency funding of coronavirus research.
The think tank questioned whether EU public money was well applied through IMI. Much of it went into research into cancer, Alzheimer’s disease and diabetes – areas that are potentially profitable and thus are given close attention by private business. But epidemic preparedness, HIV/AIDS, and poverty-related and neglected tropical diseases have been overlooked by the initiative, the report said.
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