by Giuliana Miglierini
After last week’s examination of the first part of the Commission’s Communication, specifically targeted to short-term actions to prevent and mitigate critical medicine shortages, in this second post we will address the announced mid- and long-term structural measures, focused on the creation of the Critical Medicines Alliance, the diversification of supply chains and the role of international partnerships.
The Critical Medicines Alliance
The second part of the Commission’s Communication details the structural measures to strengthen the secure supply of pharmaceuticals in the EU, with particular reference to critical medicines. An objective that, according to the Commission, may require the development of new pieces of legislation, such as the EU Critical Medicines Act. To this instance, the preparatory study should be launched by the end of 2023, and followed by the impact assessment.
In the meantime, the improved coordination of the industrial approach to the management of shortages in the EU should be pursued by the Critical Medicines Alliance, to be created in early 2024. The Alliance will bring together all involved stakeholders; its activities should start from a shared analysis of vulnerabilities in the supply chain of the critical medicines on the Union list (i.e over-dependency on a limited number of external suppliers, limited diversification possibilities, limited production capacities, etc).
The result of this exercise should be the identification of useful tools to address vulnerabilities of a limited number of critical medicines with the highest risk of shortages and impact on healthcare systems. To this regard, several lines of actions are identified in the Communication, starting from the issuing of a dedicated guidance and common criteria for the coordinated procurement of critical medicines (e.g. green production and prioritisation of supplies in Euro-pe at times of critical shortages). A better quantification of demand and the consequent possibility to compensate and incentivise industry for its effort in these directions are other expected outcomes.
Medium-term contractual incentives are proposed as a tool to improve predictability of supply and to attract new manufacturing investments in Europe, together with the use of capacity reservation contracts modelled on EU FABs. These last instruments were launched by the HERA Authority during the pandemic in order to reserve manufacturing capacities for vaccines and obtain a priority right for their manufacturing in case of a future public health emergency.
The second line of action of the Alliance would address the diversification of global supply chains for critical medicines, including the identification of priority countries to be involved in strategic partnerships on the security of supply (see also below).
The third pillar should see the Alliance involved in the coordination and harmonisation of efforts to identify security of supply needs for critical medicines, on the basis of the above-mentioned identified vulnerabilities. Actions cited by the Communication, such as the Services of General Economic Interest (SGEI) coordinated at the EU level, should be compatible with the state aid framework. The Alliance may also represent the dedicated location where member states may better discuss the possibility of a new Important Project of Common European Interest (IPCEI) focusing on sustainable manufacturing of critical medicines (including off patent medicines).
Stockpiling, skills and financial support
EU stockpiling of critical medicines is another area of activity of the Critical Medicines Alliance. The goal is to overcome current limitations typical of national stockpile programmes; the development of a common strategic approach and a Joint Action on stockpiling has been announced for the first half of 2024, based on the previously mentioned vulnerability analysis and on the experience of the Union Civil Protection Mechanism (UCPM, that will continue to be part of the EU approach) and the rescEU stockpile.
The Alliance should also address the need for new and updated skills to work in the pharmaceutical sector, so to cope with the increasing impact of digitalisation, the evolution of the regulatory environment and the green transition. Pharmacists are cited in the Communication, as their curricula could be easily adjusted to accommodate education and training on new skills. Attention should be paid to increasing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) graduates. A Pact for Skills is the measure identified to actively involve key actors in educational and training activities aimed to fill industry skills gaps.
The Alliance would also play a significant role in better leverage and align EU and national funding: a goal deemed important in order to support improved long-term investment predictability for the private sector, and to avoid duplication of efforts. Among other tools cited by the Communication to reach it, the proposed Strategic Technologies for Europe Platform (STEP) is also inclusive of pharmaceuticals, biotechnologies and medical technologies. The creation of a Sovereignty Seal to promote synergies amongst existing programmes, and the Technical Support Instrument to enhance the administrative capacity of member states in managing shortages and producing critical medicines are among other proposed tools.
Diversification of supply chains
A second, fundamental line of action identified by the Commission addresses how to better diversify the complex, global pharmaceutical supply chain, also by means of new international partnerships with third countries. According to the Communication, the EU industry needs to have access to a broad range of essential inputs; to this regard, new strategic partnerships with third countries for production of critical medicines and active ingredients should be based on concrete actions of mutual interest.
The EU has 42 preferential trade agreements in place with 74 different trading partners, and a new one is under negotiation with India. The Commission also recalled the importance of bilateral meetings with China on issues affecting access to medicines supply chains, and of the dialogue with Latin America.
An improved regulatory convergence is another main objective of the planned actions at the international level, so to increase GMP compliance of medicinal products marketed in the EU and manufactured by extra-UE partners. To this instance, the Communication mentions the work of international bodies such as the ICH (International Council for Harmonisation of Technical Requirements for Pharmaceuticals for Human Use) and ICMRA (International Coalition of Medicines Regulatory Authorities) for the harmonisation of standards for pharmaceuticals, and the WHO support to improved regulatory convergence. Many free trade and mutual recognition agreements (MRAs) signed by the EU also contain this type of obligation, and in some cases the sharing of non-sensitive market knowledge to anticipate possible problems too.
A new network of international partners should be created by the Commission within a year, in conformity with applicable state aid and antitrust rules. The network activities would focus on crisis preparedness and supply diversification. The Communication mentions also different international initiatives already in place, such as the Global Gateway to support local manufacturing of health products and announced another Team European Initiative in Africa on health security and pandemic preparedness and response. Another ongoing initiative is the EU-Latin America and Caribbean Partnership on manufacturing and access to vaccines, medicines and health technologies. The EU will also continue to support the provision of critical medicines in humanitarian contexts.