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Supporting the NHS 2020

Medicines policy needs to learn from the pandemic

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Warwick Smith

Director General, British Generic Manufacturers Association (BGMA)

Generic medicines, which make up three quarters of all prescription drugs in the UK, were central to treating patients in intensive care during the peak of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Generic medicines have been at the forefront of treating hospitalised COVID-19 patients which has led to extraordinary demand for intensive care medicines. Manufacturers have had to go to great lengths to maintain provision of critical medicines. Lessons need to be learned to ensure supply chains remain robust both now and in the face of future pandemics.

Ensuring wherever possible that high quality, low cost medicines get to patients in the right place at the right time is the guiding ethos of the UK’s generic medicines industry. The industry provides more than a billion items a year to patients, saving the NHS £13 billion in the process.

Coping with soaring demand

However, this objective was severely challenged by COVID-19 as demand soared in the early months of the pandemic. In some cases, products typically produced in relatively small volumes, suddenly saw demand rise by five or even 10 times.

The industry provides more than a billion items a year to patients, saving the NHS £13 billion in the process.

This coupled with transport disruption across the globe meant manufacturers had to work extremely hard not only to fulfil orders but ensure they made it to the UK. Stockpiles already prepared for a possible non-negotiated exit from the European Union were run down.

Further measures are needed to protect future

As the pandemic continues, the challenges within the UK are far from over. Complacency cannot be afforded, further measures must be considered from a medicines supply perspective, to mitigate what might lie ahead either from COVID-19 or other crises.

For example, currently around 25% of medicines prescribed in the UK are made here, and supply chains can stretch across the globe.

Safeguarding the future patient interests

There is a range of actions and policy changes that government and our stakeholder partners should examine in more detail to ensure medicines supply resilience can continue in the face of future issues.

These changes would cover strategic buffer stocks; changes to the intellectual property regime; procurement which focuses on resilience as well as cost; regulation which encourages diversity of supply; and targeted investment into the UK manufacturing base. These areas should be brought together under a specific industrial strategy for the generic and biosimilar medicines industries.

Partnership and collaboration were critical elements of how the UK medicines supply chain has supported the NHS so far during COVID-19. It is vital now that lessons are learned and acted upon with tangible measures put in place which safeguard the future interests of patients by strengthening the supply chain.

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