Air freight shortage limits Europe’s access to coronavirus drugs

Europe faces “severe constraints” in acquiring crucial hospital drugs needed to fight coronavirus as shrinking global air freight capacity takes its toll, the continent’s generic drugs industry body has warned.  Medicines for Europe has urged the European Commission to help deal with a situation that “continues to deteriorate day-by-day” as more countries impose travel bans and more aircraft are grounded.  The call for action shows how the Covid-19 crisis has inflamed longstanding fears over Europe’s dependence on China and India for many generic — off-patent — drugs and pharmaceutical ingredients.

While no drugs shortages have been reported yet, apart from anecdotal instances of paracetamol being stockpiled, demand is expected to rise as the pandemic intensifies. “The supply chain from China and India is critical for Europe — and is critical for the whole world,” Adrian van den Hoven, director-general of Medicines for Europe, told the Financial Times. “We need to get medicines flying around the world — and very fast — but our industry is being squeezed out of the air cargo market.”  Mr van den Hoven warned in a letter to the commission on Tuesday that the generic drugs industry had been hit by the grounding of many of the commercial passenger aircraft it relied on to carry its relatively small payloads.

Companies now faced a “major challenge” to obtain slots on high-demand and costly cargo-only flights. 

We need to get medicines flying around the world — and very fast — but our industry is being squeezed out of the air cargo market

“The generic pharmaceutical industry is experiencing severe constraints to the supply of medicines to Europe and the situation continues to deteriorate day by day as more and more travel bans apply,” says the letter, which has been seen by the FT. “This is leaving pharmaceutical manufacturers and their contracted freight forwarders with few options to transport these essential goods to and from Europe.” Medicines for Europe calls for the commission to “incentivise” the EU’s 27 member countries to use state aid to airlines as a lever to guarantee cargo capacity for medicines, pharmaceutical ingredients and medical equipment. It says an alternative would be for the commission to give direct financial support to charter aircraft dedicated to such shipments.

The concerns are acute because the spread of Covid-19 cases across Europe is already stretching intensive care facilities in some. While Europe does manufacture some core medicines used for intensive-care patients, it is highly reliant on imports of items such as narcotic pain relievers, muscle relaxant ingredients and some older anaesthetics. 

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Sign up here These drugs are often off-patent and of limited interest to many European pharmaceutical manufacturers focused on high-value exclusive products. A paper prepared for a meeting of the EU pharmaceutical committee this month said the Covid-19 outbreak showed that a “disruption of supply from India and China in the pharmaceutical value chain could present a major health security issue”.

The commission declined to comment on the Medicines for Europe letter. It is expected to bring forward recommendations, possibly as soon as Thursday, on facilitating air cargo operations during the coronavirus crisis.  Brussels has already issued guidelines for countries to set up so-called “green lanes” to ease the movement of essential goods, including medical supplies, by road around the EU.

The move came after countries around the bloc tightened border controls, causing severe tailbacks and disruption in some cases

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