by Giuliana Miglierini
The study on medicines shortages commissioned in March 2020 by the European Commission upon request of the European Parliament and Council has been published; the document, prepared by a consortium led by Technopolis, suggests 16 possible policy measures – both legislative and not-legislative – that the Commission may consider while drafting a new legislative proposal to govern the issue, expected to be announced at the end of 2022.
According to the current EU pharmaceutical legislation (Directive 2001/83/EC), marketing authorization holders (MAHs) have to submit – two months before the temporary or permanent interruption of supply of a certain medicinal product – a pre-notification to the relevant national competent authorities (NCAs) (Article 23a, a part in the case of exceptional circumstances).
The mandate to continue supply to cover the needs of patients, and respective responsibilities of MAHs and wholesale distributors are established by Article 81 of the same directive.
The new study will support some of the achievements set forth in the Pharmaceutical Strategy; another action undertaken to reduce the impact of shortages in the EU is represented by the EU Executive Steering Group on Shortages of Medicines Caused by Major Events, an initiative set up in March 2020 with the contribution of the Commission, EMA and member states.
“The Commission study on shortages by Technopolis confirms that current market framework conditions for off-patent medicines play against supply resilience – said Rebecca Guntern, President ad-interim of Medicines for Europe, commenting the release of the study –. As long as healthcare systems only focus on the cheapest possible price for off-patent medicines and do not reward investments to ensure robust supply chains, the only option for companies is to be the cheapest or to leave the market.”
The main outcomes of the study
The study on shortages focused its attention on medicines for human use marketed in the EU/ EEA in the period 2004-2020. The main objectives of the exercise include the identification of shortages’ root causes and specific characteristics, the assessment of the adequacy of the current framework (at EU and national level) and of possible solutions to address the problem.
Data from the shortages registries kept by national competent authorities (NCAs) of 22 EU’s countries was only available for years 2007-2020. Commercial data on pharmaceutical sales from IQVIA MIDAS was also used, and extensive consultation with stakeholders was run under different formats.
Central to the 16 recommendations highlighted in the study is the establishment of a centralized and harmonised EU-wide definition of medicine shortages, as well as of harmonised reporting criteria. The latter should aim to collect sufficiently detailed information on key parameters (e.g. product details, MAH, details on the shortage and impact).
Different definitions, systems for notifications and type of information requested are currently in use in the various member states; even the definition of “shortage” agreed in 2019 by EMA and HMA was not considered by stakeholders adequate to differentiate between critical and non-critical shortages. According to the report, this fragmented situation doesn’t allow for the sharing of data and comparative analysis between countries, thus resulting in the overall inefficiency of the system.
Attention should be paid also to the creation of a EU-wide list of medicines subject to critical shortages; specific policies and regulations may be developed on this basis to improve their availability. Medicines typically experiencing shortages are older, off-patent and generics drugs with low profit margins; the main therapeutic areas involved include pain, hypertension, infections and oncology.
The creation of dialogue platforms at the national level is also envisaged, where to exchange the point of view of different supply chain stakeholders (including patients and healthcare providers). The study highlights the high burden shortages create on pharmacists and physicians looking for the best possible treatment alternative for their patients. A possible way to address this issue would see the availability of information about alternative medicines in shortage databases. In many cases, this type of occurrence is referred just to some countries within the EU, thus suggesting inequitable distribution and access rather than global supply issues may play a major role in shortages.
Understanding the root causes
Limited reporting is a key point to be solved in order to improve the understanding of root causes of shortages. According to the study, a reductionist approach to reporting is often used; this makes fully evident just acute causes (e.g. a problem at the production site), but leaves unattended more systemic issues (e.g. consolidation of manufacturing, resulting in a very limited number of production sites) and market-related factors (e.g. single-winner procurement practices).
Quality and manufacturing issues account for approx. half of all cases of shortages, suggest the report; among commercial reasons are market withdrawals and unexpected increases in demand. The information available for the analysis was judged insufficient to exactly asses the potential risks linked to outsourcing of manufacturing activities (including the production of APIs) and parallel distribution.
The proposed recommendations ask for greater transparency of industry supply quotas as well as parallel traders’ and wholesalers’ transactions. Suppliers should establish adequate shortage prevention and mitigation plans; legal obligations for MAHs and wholesalers are suggested in order to maintain a safety stock of (unfinished) products for medicines of major therapeutic interest at EU-level.
A new legislation to tackle shortages
The provisions set forth by Articles 23a and 81 of the Directive have been transposed differently into the single national legislations, often well before the establishment of the shortages registries. Several EU’s countries have acted on their own to strengthen the system, for example establishing mandatory reporting on stock levels and export restrictions. Nevertheless, according to the study available data are not sufficient to draw final conclusions on the costs and efficacy of stock keeping obligations on the level of (notified) shortages in the countries where they were introduced.
A more pro-active approach to the management of medicines shortages by MAHs and distributors may be supported by the availability of a EU-wide and uniform legislation governing financial sanctions to be applied if notification requirements and/or supply responsibilities are not met. Other suggestions include the adoption of common principles for the introduction of national restrictions on intra-EU trade, and the availability of greater flexibilities for emergency imports of specific products in case of market withdrawals and other critical shortages. As for procurement, the study indicates the opportunity to address public procurement tenders also considering the incorporation of requirements for more diversified, multiple tenderers and thereby supply sources.
From a regulatory perspective, the document highlights the opportunity to reduce costs and simplify administrative procedures for the submission of post-approval changes. The availability of an accelerated mutual recognition procedure (MRP) within the EU is also suggested, together with a more efficient use of the Repeat Use Procedure. Improved flexibility should be a target also with respect to the EU-wide regulation governing medicines packaging and labelling, so to allow for the use of digital leaflets and multi-country/multi-language packaging and labelling.