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24th Feb 2024

Will coronavirus change EU's pharma supply chain?

  • The French National Pharmaceutical Academy estimates that the EU imports 80 percent of its 'active pharmaceutical ingredients' - mostly from China and India (Photo: Grumpy-Puddin)

The impact of the coronavirus on China and India, two of the world's largest pharmaceutical exporters, has disrupted medicine supply chains worldwide, seeing manufacturing, distribution and trade restrictions, plus short-term scarcities for certain products.

"This crisis has revealed our morbid dependency on China and India as regards pharmaceuticals," the European Commission vice-president Vera Jourova said on Sunday (April 19) in a debate on Czech state television.

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"This is something that makes us vulnerable and we have to make a radical change there," she added, stressing that "this is a big lesson we have learnt".

While many countries depend on China for supplies of masks, tests kits and other antivirus gear, India remains the world's top export of so-called 'generics', such as paracetamol and the anti-malarial drug hydroxychloroquine which is being tested as a possible treatment for Covid-19.

The global race for hydroxychloroquine forced India to put restrictions on its pharmaceutical exports in March, but the country rapidly changed its position amid pressure from the US.

According to Jourová, the commission will reassess the EU's pharmaceutical supply chains and try to diversify them to produce within the bloc as many supplies as possible.

This action plan will then be put to MEPs and member states.

France and some other EU countries have already urged more manufacturing "sovereignty" from foreign supplies in strategic value chains.

"There will be a 'before' and an 'after' the coronavirus in global economics," warned French finance minister Bruno Le Maire last month.

'Isolationism' risks

The European Commission recently published guidelines for member states on the optimisation of supply of medicines and stockpiling, linked to the Covid-19 pandemic, and urged member states to lift exports bans.

However, some export restrictions of medical supplies remain across the bloc, in member states such as Hungary or Belgium.

Some experts have warned of the negative consequences of these measures, stressing the pharmaceutical supply chain is intended to work across borders.

"The consequences of export bans are directly detrimental to the availability of medicines for patients across the EU and globally, as well as risking retaliatory measures from other regions that could impact timely availability of medicines for European patients," the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) said in a statement.

"No one country can meet all its needs on its own, and through restrictions, countries risk isolating themselves and their citizens from the global supply network," they added.

Additionally, the EFPIA called on the commission to ensure that member states should not take unilateral decisions that could negatively impact on the supply of essential new vaccines, diagnostics and treatments.

'Profiteering'

Meanwhile, a group of 20 NGOs and academics in the UK have voiced concerns about the risk of pharmaceutical companies profiteering off the pandemic or creating barriers for researchers attempting to build up new knowledge.

"There is a real danger that without safeguards, pharmaceutical companies may gain exclusive rights to a new vaccine, which in turn could lead to price gouging and unaffordable prices for millions of people," write the authors in an open letter.

The upcoming EU pharmaceutical strategy, which will be unveiled by the commission at the end of 2020, is expected to reflect the experiences linked to the coronavirus pandemic and propose specific actions to secure supplies and ensure innovation for patients.

As a part of the new industrial strategy announced last March, the new pharmaceutical roadmap also aims to address pharmaceutical pricing, as well making the sector more environment-friendly.

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