by Giuliana Miglierini
As announced on 3 October in the speech given by Commissioner Stella Kyriakides at European Parliament Plenary Session, the EU Commission has published on 24 October its Communication on medicine shortages and strategic healthcare autonomy.
The planned actions are firstly targeted to prevent and mitigate on the short-term critical medicine shortages, thus avoiding the reoccurrence of situations such as those experienced in the 2022. Mid- and long-term actions have been also addressed to support the strategic autonomy of the European pharmaceutical supply chain. Among these is the creation of a Critical Medicines Alliance, to start operations in early 2024.
“Improving the management of critical shortages of medicines and ensuring a steady security of supply for the EU has been our priority since day one. We need a single market for medicines in the EU and a new approach to better tackle shortages of critical medicines. Today we are putting forward collective actions to work closer with the industry and help Member States improve the security of supply for the coming winter and in the long-term.” said Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety.
In this first post, we will examine actions in the field of medicines shortages, leaving the medium and long-term ones to a following article (part 2).
Prepared for future winters
The first goal of the EU Commission is to avoid situations of shortages of critical antibiotics such as those that occurred last year. To this instance, the Health Emergency Preparedness and Response Authority (HERA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) have already identified key antibiotics potentially at risk of critical shortages in the winter season, also in future years.
Immediately after the release of the Communication by the Commission, EMA published the details of the announced new European Voluntary Solidarity Mechanism for medicines, the MSSG Solidarity Mechanism.
The mechanism was developed by EMA’s Medicines Shortages Steering Group (MSSG), on the basis of the informal experience made during the pandemic. In case of critical shortages escalated to the MSSG for coordination at European level to request assistance, other member states may be of help through the rescEU stockpile mechanism to redistribute medicines from available stocks. The activation of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM), via its 24/7 available European Response Coordination Centre (ERCC), aims to coordinate and logistically support the voluntary transfer of medicines, and it should represent the last resort, after the interested member state had exhausted all other possibilities.
The MSSG also developed a Toolkit including recommendations on how to tackle shortages of critical medicines. Among others are the monitoring of available stocks, supply and demand, interactions with marketing authorisation holders and manufacturers for increasing the manufacturing capacity and for the fair distribution of medicinal products, the implementation of regulatory flexibilities and actions aimed to improve communication to the public and international cooperation with other regulators to early identify critical shortages.
The other actions to tackle shortages
The first version of the Union list of critical medicines is expected to be released by the end of 2023. It will allow the development of further actions, on the basis of the analysis of the vulnerabilities of the supply chain of selected medicines to occur by April 2024.
In addition to the practical recommendations relative to demand forecasting at national level, the Commission is working on an EU Mechanism for Demand Signalling that should better support the collective EU public sector in its decisions. A new European Shortages Monitoring Platform for reporting information regarding available stocks and shortages of medicines is expected to start operating in 2025. Many future actions shall be supported using artificial intelligence to extract information about trends in demand and supply from existing data.
At the regulatory level, a new Joint Action has been announced for early 2024 to promote the effective use of flexibility as well as of measures applied at national level (i.e. magistral preparations of local pharmacies). Regulatory flexibilities may include, among others, the quick authorisation of alternatives, the approval of alternative suppliers of raw materials or finished products, or the temporary extension of shelf-life.
Another initiative announced for 2024 should see the issuing of an EU guidance on procurement of medicines, better detailing the already existing tools and practices supporting the security of supply. In the meantime, an EU joint procurement for antibiotics and treatments for respiratory viruses should be activated for the incoming winter.
The Communication contains some recommendations for member states and the pharmaceutical industry. The former are called to monitor and fully enforce the supply obligations of companies, to develop effective communication plans, and to consider how national procurement rules and criteria can increase security of supply. Industrial stakeholders should continuously monitor the evolution of demand and supply of critical medicines, assuring to the full the supply obligation under EU law. Early communication of critical situations to regulators should also occur, as well as the implementation of recommendations, both on regulatory flexibilities and on the elements of the pharmaceutical revision that could already be applied.
Comments from the stakeholders
The interested pharmaceutical associations promptly reacted to the EU Commission’s Communication.
EFPIA particularly welcomed the structural measures to address the industrial dimension of medicines shortages in the medium and long term, as the Critical Medicines Alliance. The development of solutions targeting the specific root causes of shortages, and measures aimed at mitigating shortages in the short term should be “proportionate and provide efficient, workable solutions that serve public health needs”. EFPIA asks for the industry to be included in the design and implementation of new processes and highlighted the “missed opportunity” represented by sharing of the information stored in the European Medicines Verification System (EMVS).
“In response to Member State and Parliament calls for a Critical Medicines Act, this communication is a positive first step for the security of supply of medicines. Medicines for Europe will partner with the EU to implement these important reforms”, said Medicines for Europe President, Elisabeth Stampa. The associations ask, among others, for a strategic EU reserve of essential medicines, and EU funds and State aid projects to incentivise investments in greener and more secure manufacturing processes for essential medicines and active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs). Digitalisation of the regulatory system and harmonisation of pack sizes and presentations would be also helpful.
European community pharmacists also welcomed the Communication, as it may help to avoid new, severe medicine shortages like the one experienced last winter. “PGEU’s annual survey confirms that shortages exist in all EU countries across all types of medicines, causing detriment to patients’ health, waste of resources and frustration. Every day, we spend hours managing shortages and finding solutions to guarantee continuity of treatment for our patients”, commented PGEU President Koen Straetmans. As for the common strategic approach to stockpiling, according to PGEU it should be guaranteed that stocks will not be to such an extent as to jeopardize the general supply of medicines, nor they should generate unnecessary waste.
EuropaBio, representing the biotech industry, positively commented on the Communication and highlighted that EU actions should not be limited to essential medicines, but should target also the growing dependency on third countries for innovation medicines.