Addressing shortages of medicines

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Series Details PE 649.402
Publication Date April 2020
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Medicines shortages have been a growing problem in the European Union (EU) in recent years. As the coronavirus outbreak unfolds, the risk of bottlenecks in the supply of medicines to patients has become particularly high. More broadly, problems with the availability of, and access to, new medicines – most frequently associated with high-priced medicines – have also been a central topic in political debates for some time now.

The causes underlying medicines shortages are complex and multi-dimensional. The European Commission links them to manufacturing problems, industry quotas, legal parallel trade, but also to economic aspects, such as pricing (which is a competence of the Member States). The coronavirus (COVID-19) crisis has brought to the fore the geopolitical dimension of these shortages, that is, the EU's dependency on countries beyond its boundaries, especially China and India, for the production of many active pharmaceutical ingredients and medicines.

Solutions to the problem are believed to entail collaboration and joint action, as well as the involvement of multiple stakeholders, including regulators, industry, patients, healthcare professionals, and international players. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the World Health Organization, in particular, are conducting work to improve access to medicines. Medicines supply-chain stakeholders have all weighed in on the debate, offering explanations and recommendations for addressing the problem.

Key EU institutions, several Council presidencies and the Member States have addressed the challenge of shortages and more broadly, that of safeguarding access to medicines, through various initiatives. The European Parliament has specifically addressed the issue in a March 2017 resolution. Ensuring the availability of medicines and overcoming supply-chain problems revealed by the coronavirus crisis are also expected to be important topics in the Commission's forthcoming pharmaceutical strategy.

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