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Ensuring access to medicines for all

Medicine shortages are a clear problem in Europe. How can we fill the gap?  

You might think that in Europe in the year 2021, accessing medicines as varied as life-saving heart pills or simple remedies for springtime allergies never poses a problem. Yet the reality is that every day, citizens of all ages and states of health walk into their neighborhood pharmacies with a preblockedion only to leave empty-handed. At best, these interactions are annoying. The pollen sniffles continue. At worst, they are life threatening. What is to be done if you can’t find medicine that is essential to your health? 

Most people would agree that access to medicine is an essential part of a well-functioning society—even a human right. Yet for reasons we’ll get to shortly, this is simply not the case in Europe at present, regardless of the pandemic. So what causes these shortages?  

The reasons are varied, but over the last few years, several clear causes of shortages have emerged:

  • One cause is an over-dependence on an extremely concentrated supply chain, which relies on too few suppliers primarily in India and China. One can imagine what happens when the supply chain is overly concentrated and an important supplier is prevented from production.
  • Yet the problem is not as simple as just supply chain predicaments. Commercial withdrawals, where a Marketing Authorisation Holder (MAH) decides for business or strategic reasons to cease marketing the product in a given Member State, also results in shortages.  
  • Furthermore, a lack of manufacturing capacity, natural disasters, lag times, and surges in demand can also contribute to medicine shortages.  
  • Regulatory issues and a lack of harmonisation within the EU may also contribute to shortages, though this is a less common occurrence. 

So, how can medicine shortages be solved?  

The answer to this is, of course, varied and complex. Yet a clear short term answer is parallel distribution. This sounds like a technical concept, but in reality, it’s simply the process of a parallel distributor purchasing medicine in one EU country, moving it to another EU country where there’s a shortage, repackaging it to comply with national laws and linguistic needs, and selling it. All the while, the medicine remains identical to the manufacturer’s product and is regulated under the same strict EU laws as any medicine is. Most important is that it gets medicine to the places and people in need.   

In the medium and long term, parallel distribution also has a key role to play in alleviating medicine shortages. One good example is commercial withdrawals, which are an everyday occurrence in Europe. It may seem that parallel distribution would not be relevant in the case of a drug maker taking a particular medicine off the market. Yet many products that are commercially withdrawn can still be found at the same or lower prices in other Member States. Thus, parallel distributors can direct these supplies to other Member States in need.  

Solving medicine shortages is a complex topic. For a more detailed and broad explanations about how parallel distribution can play a vital role in alleviating shortages, visit the website of Affordable Medicines Europe. Furthermore, you can follow the hashtag #FillTheGap on social media channels.  

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