The EU's Surprise Pharmaceutical Probe

The European Commission is to investigate pharmaceutical companies across Europe as it is concerned that the sector is not competitive enough, and has already launched "surprise inspections" at drug company premises.

Brussels says it is concerned that too few new drugs are making it onto the market. From 2000 to 2004, "only 28 novel molecular entities" were launched each year. In addition, generic medicines have not been reaching the market fast enough.

"If innovative products are not being produced, and cheaper generic alternatives to existing products are in some cases being delayed, then we need to find out why and, if necessary, take action," EU competition commissioner Neelie Kroes said on Wednesday (16 January) when announcing the sector inquiry.

Europeans spend around €200 billion a year -- or around €400 per person - on medicines, according to commission data. Such figures make the sector "exceptionally important" and "vital for all of us" as well as for the economy, the commissioner said.

Beyond the commission, national competition authorities in some member states -- notably France and Germany -- have also shown concerns regarding the pharmaceutical sector and have been "very active" in the field lately, Ms Kroes added.

Additionally, commission officials accompanied by their counterparts from national competition authorities have begun a series of "surprise inspections" at the premises of pharmaceutical companies around Europe.

Ms Kroes said both EU and non-EU companies operating within EU territory would be probed, but stopped short of giving names of specific firms.

, Anglo-Swedish drugs company AstraZeneca, British GlaxoSmithKline and France's Sanofi-Aventis have in the meantime confirmed they have been approached by commission regulators, according to a Forbes report.

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