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Europe comes up short on drug supplies

France has joined the Netherlands in pushing for an EU-wide approach to stopping drug shortages.

Drug shortages in Europe are hitting all-time highs — and countries are looking to Brussels for an answer.

In July alone, cancer patients were unable to access treatment in Italy, shortages of neurological drugs reached an “unprecedented scale” in Poland and the total number of unavailable drugs in Belgium reached a new record.

Pharmacists and health campaign groups have been warning for years of worsening shortages, partly linked to increased dependency on a limited number of suppliers located overseas.

“What’s new is that it used to be smaller countries with less attractive markets like Romania, Bulgaria, Eastern European countries,” said Charlotte Roffiaen, the councillor for European affairs at patient organization France Assos Santé. “Now it’s all countries — even the wealthiest ones.”

France this week became the latest country to call for an EU-wide solution. The number of drugs reported as scarce in the country increased 20-fold between 2008 and 2018, according to the country’s drugs regulator — and is predicted to rise by a further 60 percent this year.

“It is true that medicines and the required raw materials are increasingly being produced outside of Europe" — Bruno Bruins, the Netherlands’ medical care minister.

One idea put forward by Paris in a new action plan Monday is that the EU could set up public drug manufacturers to produce some medicines to supply all countries.

With more than 30 patient and health groups asking the European Commission to investigate why Europe is experiencing increasing shortages, the Netherlands’ Medical Care Minister Bruno Bruins has said the institution must put the issue high on its agenda for the next mandate.

The head of the Commission’s health department Anne Bucher said in a recent interview that the Commission doesn’t have any plans to take further action to address drug shortages besides what’s already being done, although she acknowledged the problem.

However, Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis last month told drugmakers that failure to guarantee continuous supply across the EU “will lead to solutions and ways to address this issue, which might not be of industry liking.”

Asian reliance
One explanation for Europe’s rising shortages is that drugs and their ingredients are increasingly manufactured by only a handful of companies, mostly located in Asia.

“It is true that medicines and the required raw materials are increasingly being produced outside of Europe. This mainly concerns countries such as China and India,” Bruins told Dutch television two weeks ago. “If we are dependent on a limited number of countries for the production of raw materials, this makes the chain of drug production vulnerable. I find that undesirable.”

The result is that any disruption to the supply chain causes serious shortages. “For years, we've been ringing alarm bells because the market is becoming concentrated,” said Adrian van den Hoven, the director general of Medicines for Europe, which represents generic drugmakers.

He gave the example of an explosion in a Chinese factory that made piperacillin-tazobactam, an antibiotic ingredient, in 2017. The explosion left only one other manufacturer of the ingredient worldwide.

Pharmacists have also said Brexit is already causing drug shortages in the U.K., as the industry seeks to stockpile supplies just as manufacturers’ confidence in the country’s market wanes.

“The causes of shortages are understood to be multifactorial, including problems in production, global consolidation of manufacturing, unintended impacts of pricing and tendering policies, as well as problems within the supply chain,” branded drugmaker lobby EFPIA said in an emailed statement.

99 problems, 99 solutions
The multiple causes of drug shortages means there are many ideas for how to solve them.

Pharmacists want to be able to modify a patient's preblockedion without having to send people back to the doctor's office for a new blocked. Access campaigners want better transparency of drug prices to lower costs, and patients groups want national authorities to fine pharma companies more if they are responsible for a shortage.

“We [were] expecting the [ministry of health] to take measures to address the roots of the problems, not to monitor the problems” — Pauline Londeix, Observatoire Transparence Médicaments.

One tactic EU countries including Belgium, Poland and Slovakia have tried to address shortages is limiting parallel trade, through which traders sell drugs purchased in one country in another, for a higher price.

“It's one of the instruments we have,” Roffiaen said. “Restricting parallel trade works when the issue is parallel trade. It doesn’t help when there are manufacturing issues or marketing issues.”

Roffiaen also said she is skeptical of France’s suggestion to set up a publicly owned, European-wide drugs manufacturer, like the ones that France and other countries have to supply drugs to the military at small scale.

“It might be one of the solutions, but it’s not the ultimate solution,” she said, “because it's very difficult to put in place. What we need is to prevent shortages.”

She said the best way to handle the problem is to better incentivize companies to “come back to Europe.”

France’s action plan calls for new financial incentives to either locate or relocate production of raw materials and medicines in France and in Europe by 2022.

Pauline Londeix from the Observatoire Transparence Médicaments, a French civil society watchdog, said France’s plan lays out few concrete proposals to tackle shortages.

“We [were] expecting the [ministry of health] to take measures to address the roots of the problems, not to monitor the problems,” she said. “By postponing any constraining measures, we believe that the [ministry] has not understood the emergency of the problem.”

Roffiaen cited a survey of 1,009 people conducted by France Assos Santé before the European Parliament election in which 90 percent of people said they want more EU-wide regulation to prevent shortages.

Lieven Zwaenepoel, spokesperson for the association of Belgian pharmacists APB, said the European Commission needs to do something about the issue, focusing less on the free movement of goods and more on public health.

“If one country does so you get some attention but no real solution,” said Zwaenepoel. “If the European Union were to do so it would make more of an impression.”


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