By Giuliana Miglierini
Continuity of medicinal product supply is still representing a key issue for European countries. The HMA/EMA Task Force on the Availability of Authorised Medicines for Human and Veterinary Use has published a new guidance document in the form of recommendations for the industry on best practices to be adopted to prevent shortages of human medicines.
The recommendations are targeted at marketing authorisation holders (MAHs), wholesalers, distributors and manufacturers. The specific role of each actor is detailed, and highlights are provided on how to optimally approach the prevention and mitigation of shortages. The document refers to the harmonised definition of shortage agreed by EMA and HMA, i.e. “A shortage of a medicinal product for human or veterinary use occurs when supply does not meet demand at a national level“.
Different players for different roles
The pharmaceutical supply chain is characterised by many different actors, each of which plays a specific role in the development, manufacturing and distribution of medicinal products.
Marketing authorisation holders are the ultimate responsible for the monitoring of all activities needed to timely produce and distribute their products. This means MAHs should oversight the entire supply chain, from suppliers of active ingredients (APIs) to end users, in order to continually align demand with supply, evaluate the actual impact of a shortage, and establish the more suitable prevention or mitigation strategies. According to the guidance, reference should be made to the “ISPE Drug shortages prevention plan – Holistic view from root cause to prevention” in order to build a suitable quality culture integrated into product lifecycle; compliance to ICH Q10 is also recommended.
Manufacturers include both APIs suppliers and producers of the medicinal product, which should possess a in depth knowledge of their processes and issues that may impact on product availability. This is even more true for contract manufacturing organisations (CMOs), as a problem with their manufacturing capacity may impact many different customers. Wholesale distributors have general visibility of stock levels and product flow and can identify early signals of a potential medicine shortage. They are subject to national laws as for their obligations to ensure continuity of supply to patients.
As for institutions, national competent authorities (NCAs) are responsible for the coordination of the response to a shortage by means of regulatory tools and strategies. Existing regulatory flexibility can be used, while NCAs cannot intervene in pricing, sourcing, and clinical practice. NCAs are also responsible to communicate actual shortages from their websites.
EMA’s responsibilities relate to shortages of centrally authorised products and coordination of the EU response to supply issues due to major events or public health emergencies. The Agency is also responsible for the publication of a public catalogue for shortages assessed by the CHMP and/or PRAC committees, and for the publication of information on critical shortages monitored at EU level.
National health service providers are responsible for the setting up of policy and operational aspects needed to guarantee the timely access to medicines (i.e. reimbursement schemes, purchasing arrangements, clinical guidelines, etc.). In case of a shortage, they are called to indicate available alternatives, and to issue specific clinical guidance for healthcare professionals if needed.
The overall sustainability and accountability of health systems is the major goal for national Ministries of Health, to be tackled by mean of legislative initiatives. End users include healthcare professionals responsible for appropriate prescribing and for the identification of available alternatives in the case of a shortage affecting their patients. Timely information to patients, in particular for specific diseases, may be provided by patients representative groups, which may also collect feedback on the impact of shortages for patients.
Ten recommendations to prevent shortages
The guidance highlights the importance to notify as soon as possible to NCAs any potential or actual shortage, in order to timely face the increased demand for alternative product suppliers. To this instance, MAHs and wholesalers are in the best position to monitor available stocks and report at early stages about possible issues.
An improved transparency would be needed as for the provided shortage information, to avoid patients’ concerns and the consequent risk of stockpiling and to avoid duplication of efforts. To this instance, MAHs are called to provide all available information requested by the notification form, including also multi-country information (e.g. related to API suppliers).
MAHs should also have a shortage prevention plan in place, addressing the entire life cycle of the specific product from sourcing of raw materials to manufacturing capacity and distribution. Wholesale distributors are also called to develop similar plans focusing on their specific role. Prevention plans should include an analysis of vulnerabilities and risks of interruption of supply, the assessment of the robustness of the supply chain arrangements and controls as well as of the need of revalidation, and the availability of a medicine shortage risk register to identify products of clinical importance by therapeutic use and availability of alternatives.
MAHs and wholesalers should also have a shortage management plan to be activated in case of issues with the availability of a certain product. To this instance, the capacity of available alternative manufacturing sites is critical, including CMOs which should always be kept timely informed by MAHs. A possible approach suggested by the guidance sees the development of a dashboard to continuously monitor signals for potential supply disruption. Procedures to identify true shortage points would also be needed to overcome the current limitation of the automated order systems.
The punctual implementation of Pharmaceutical Quality System according to ICH Q10 and ICH Q12 is also deemed fundamental to prevent any delay related to regulatory procedures that may impact on product availability. Product quality reviews (PQRs) are suggested as a possible tool to capture appropriate data and trends for continuous improvement.
The overall resilience of the supply chain should be supported by the justification of the adoption of the just-in-time supply model, particularly when limited alternatives are available. MAHs and wholesalers should guarantee the availability of suitable contingency stocks to face any unexpected delay.
Sub-optimal communication among different stakeholders should be also addressed by means of an improved cooperation, including a two-way communication system extending also to potential or actual shortages. Critical points of attention are identified in the intra-company communication between different departments, those between local MAH representatives and manufacturer, and the availability of information on stock levels to entities entitled to supply medicines to the public via ordering portals. Specific criteria for communication, together with the description of key processes and supply chain maps should be developed by each stakeholder.
Stockpiling is another critical practice to be avoided in order to ensure the fair and timely distribution of medicines. To this instance, healthcare professionals are called not to order or dispense more stock than normal in case of shortage, while MAH stock allocation practices between different countries should also take into account the clinical need of patients, and not just economic factors. Parallel trade should be also avoided as far as possible. NCAs should duly justify any decision to limit this practice, while companies should seek advice from their relevant authorities of the exporting country in case of critical shortages.