Heavyweights of the healthcare sector have been discussing innovation and who should pay for it at the Biovision meeting in Lyon, France.

Chief among the contributiors to the debate was Sanofi head Chris Viehbacher who pointed out the problems innovative pharma faces in times of higher costs and tougher regulatory pathways. He noted that when filing drugs now, “you have to demonstrate you are much better” and be more more innovative but that means firms need to take on board much more risk.

Mr Viehbacher (pictured) also came up with the stark figures that for every euro spent on R&D, the industry on average gets 70 cents back. Of the 400 new drugs approved in the last decade, only 20% of them have made their money back.

One of the key reasons for this lack of success was that “we were very siloed”, Mr Viehbacher argued, saying that collaboration is vital and companies need to go where the science is. This view was echoed by Paul Stoffels, Johnson & Johnson’s chief scientific officer, who said that if there are no biotech companies, “the pharmaceutical world will not survive”, adding that there is almost universal backing for collaboration being the only way forward.

Don't spend billions on drug sure to fail

Dr Stoffels noted the staggering amounts spent on drugs that have failed to get to market, adding that pharma knows it cannot afford to spend more billions on a product that it knows is going to fail. He also argued that nearly every new drug developed today involves 30 new technologies, warning that we must recognise that innovative technology has to be paid for, and urged regulators to collaborate with firms on accelerating approvals and access to medicines.

Mr Viehbacher told attendees that “no-one here wants us to stop spending billions of dollars” on research, but the lack of reward needs addressing urgently. He added that “we are going to have to reconcile patent length” with the time it takes to develop a drug, as currently the “clock starts” when a molecule is registered, though development could take 20 years, as is the case with Sanofi’s dengue fever vaccine.

The EFPIA boss also slammed critics of the price of Gilead Sciences’ hepatitis C treatment Sovaldi (sofosbuvir) for which a 12-week course costs $84,000. “Outrageous? Not at all”, he said, given that Sovaldi is curing people and the cost of not using such a therapy is clearly much higher, if liver transplants are needed and so on.

Mr Viehbacher added that “we are developing drugs of unprecedented levels of efficacy”, making special reference to investigational checkpoint inhibitors for cancer”. He called for a sensible debate on how money is spent on health, noting that governments can be prepred to spend “100,000 euros to keep you alive but not one euro to keep you well”.