Amsterdam has a drugs problem

AMSTERDAM — The Netherlands wants to transform the south Amsterdam district where the EUs drugs agency will be housed into a bustling hub for Europes pharmaceutical companies.

But it would help if the minister overseeing the agencys relocation would keep quiet.

After the city was picked as the new home of the European Medicines Agency following the Brexit referendum, Dutch officials set out to bring not only the agencys employees across the Channel but also some of the near 2,000 companies that have connections to the agency in London.

Yet while the governments economy ministry continues its push to attract British companies, Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins has loudly proclaimed his intention to slash drug prices and reduce valuable exclusivity periods, hitting pharmas bottom line.

Thats making pharma and biotech companies wary.

Dutch Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins greets Prime Minister Mark Rutte on October 24, 2017 in The Hague | Remko De Waal/AFP via Getty Images

“Were getting, as an industry, contradicting signals when it comes to the importance of innovation,” Elizabeth Kuiper, public affairs executive director at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations, told Dutch officials at a meeting hosted by FTI Consulting and attended by drug representatives in Brussels this month.

“On the one hand, you have all these [positive] actions … Whereas from the political perspective, all we hear as companies and as an industry is that actually, youre not so much pro-innovation,” she told the countrys representatives.

Bruins, a member of Prime Minister Mark Ruttes liberal Peoples Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD), in April suggested halving the market exclusivity period for drugs for rare diseases from 10 years to five, after years of efforts by former VVD Health Minister Edith Schippers to mobilize EU countries to take action on drug prices.

Kuiper referenced a move by Dutch pharmacists to bypass drug companies products and make their own medicines, and said that Bruins has said that “its super easy to make a pill.”

“I know sometimes publicity about what the Netherlands are saying, and sometimes they are very vocal, is negative” — Gerard Schouw, general manager at the Dutch Pharma Trade Association

“I even got questions from my own family about it, Well is that actually right?” Kuiper said. “So for patients, thats very threatening.”

Industry reps in the Netherlands are working hard to reassure companies.

“What you see is a difference between what is the spoken word of some persons, and whats written in policy documents,” said Gerard Schouw, general manager at the Dutch Pharma Trade Association. He added that Amsterdam was awarded the EMA relatively recently, and it will take some time to “create a positive atmosphere around medicines for all people who are governing.”

A spokesperson for Bruins, asked to comment on the fact that the ministers rhetoric was making companies hesitant, said: “The fact that EMA is now in Amsterdam provides a positive incentive for companies to come to the Netherlands and to perform research over here. Health care — and the access to innovative medicines — however needs to remain affordable.”

Jostling for space

The nations plans to attract pharmaceutical companies were laid out in a letter from Mona Keijzer, the Dutch governments state secretary for economic affairs and climate policy, to the president of the Dutch parliament in February. She wrote that the EMAs move is “a huge opportunity for the Netherlands to develop itself into an international hub” for the life sciences and health industries.

The government-backed Netherlands Foreign Investment Agency subsequently set up the “Invest in Holland” network including a life and health sciences team focused on attracting companies in the U.K., the U.S. and Asia to work alongside the EMA.

Amsterdam officials hope to capitalize on the relocation of the European Medicines Agency | Aurore Belot/AFP via Getty Images

The country is also developing an action plan “to find out how good is the business climate in the Netherlands,” said Janneke Timmerman, program director for the Dutch economy ministry, which is likely to be released in the fall or end of the year.

Timmerman said the government will appoint an ambassador specifically tasked with bringing this plan to life. It has made a promotional video and sent books to its embassies around the world.

Yet its Bruins comments, rather than this pro-pharma push, that have captured headlines.

“I know sometimes publicity about what the Netherlands are saying, and sometimes they are very vocal, is negative,” said Schouw. “Sometimes the focus is too much on negative things.”

Holding up the front page of that mornings de Volkskrant paper about a new “pay for performance” drug-pricing experiment, Schouw said: “[The article] is also about medicines, but it is very positive. And this is an example of how we can combine the discussion about high prices of medicines with new innovations and working together with pharmaceutical companies, insurance and doctors.”

Amsterdams Deputy Mayor Udo Kock said the fact that “the Netherlands is at the forefront of thinking about and developing innovations in these pricing policies” could be for companies “a reason to come … because then they establish themselves in a country that is at the forefront of developing these new policies.”

“From a business perspective, as you say, there might be a difference in perception locally and internationally” — Elizabeth Kuiper, public affairs executive director at the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations

Another Dutch official commented that drug pricing is an issue that every country is tackling — the Dutch are just more vocal with their message.

The result is that its being heard loud and clear.

“From a business perspective, as you say, there might be a difference in perception locally and internationally,” EFPIAs Kuiper said. “But I mean, our heads of Europe and our CEOs, of course, read newspapers and get translations about whats happening.”

Wary of going Dutch

Dutch officials insist there is no tension between the nations health ministry, whose job it is to negotiate drug prices with pharma companies, and the economy ministry, which is playing a key role in attracting them to the country.

They point to Keijzers letter which was written by both the health and economy ministries.

“I think everybody in my ministry is pro-innovation, also the ministry of health is pro-innovation,” the economy ministrys Timmerman said. “I think the cost of innovation — thats what the debate is about. There are different views, and therefore its very important that we work closely together in the chances coming up around the EMA.”

“By definition its irrelevant where we operate in Europe” — EMA Executive Director Guido Rasi

Timmerman stressed both ministries are playing active roles in creating the nations action plan.

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