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Debate over IMI priorities reignites

The Innovative Medicines Initiative (IMI) has been accused of using EU money to “almost exclusively” benefit large pharmaceutical companies.

In an investigation published on 9 March, the German news website Spiegel Online says that the idea of linking academia and industry through an EU-funded public-private partnership to speed up drug development was good, but that the results have been “disastrous”.

The IMI, launched under Framework 7, was pitched as a way to push public health research that was not yet commercially viable, covering issues such as seizures and tuberculosis. But instead of focusing on areas deemed in need by the World Health Organization, the IMI has instead chosen areas in which industry will enjoy big profits, says Spiegel Online.

In some cases, the IMI has funded activities that would have taken place anyway—meaning that EU funds have simply been used to reduce industry costs, the investigation found. It quotes the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations as saying on its website that IMI membership can offer “tremendous cost savings, as the IMI projects replicate work that individual companies would have had to do anyway”—an assertion that was later removed by Efpia.

The article also cites concerns from 2010, when the League of European Research Universities wrote to the IMI board to say that universities, research institutions and small businesses were not being treated as equal partners. But the European Commission has failed to act, critics say.

“The investigation included some criticisms of the IMI that the Commission and Efpia say have been corrected,” says Helle Aagaard, the EU policy adviser for Médecins Sans Frontières. “However, we still have strong concerns that the research agenda continues to be where industry has an interest in investing its in-kind contributions.”

Spiegel Online lists seven criticisms, one of which is that EU institutions have been denied access to financial details of industry contributions to the IMI. One national representative from the Fuel Cells and Hydrogen Joint Technology Initiative says this is a problem across all such Horizon 2020 initiatives. “I accept that if you want industry involved, you have to give power to industry, but more transparency would avoid the impression of a ‘closed-club’ environment,” says the representative.

Ingeborg Gräßle, a German MEP who heads the Committee on Budgetary Control, says there is a “systematic conflict of interest” in JTIs, meaning it is not clear “whether the taxpayer is getting value for money”.

However, she acknowledges that the JTI model is strongly supported by the Commission, which could explain why concerns have not been addressed sufficiently. “The Parliament will have to take a very close look at public-private partnerships,” says Gräßle.

This article also appeared in Research Europe