Parallel trade in the EU: there are arguments for it and arguments against it, but the latest reports from the UK suggest that the trade is having a significantly negative impact on patients and the supply of medicines.
According to newspaper reports, such as those in The Guardian and The Telegraph, shortages have been reported for more than 40 drugs, including treatments for cancer, lung disease, blood clots, asthma and epilepsy. There is more than enough supply to satisfy demand. The problem is parallel trade.
“For months I have been concerned about the potential impact on patients’ health on a small number of medicines being sold abroad by speculators,” Mike O’Brien, UK Health Minister, said in a statement. “Rather than selling drugs to NHS patients as they should, they are selling them abroad for greater profit.”
As O’Brien says, this issue has been ongoing in the UK for months. In August 2009, the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) published a briefing on medicines supply that revealed a 1156% increase in the number of emergency medicine deliveries, from 6134 in January–May 2008 to 77020 in the same period in 2009.
The root of the problem lies in the fact that UK medicines are generally cheaper than elsewhere in Europe. The current low value of the British pound also provides further financial incentive for UK wholesalers, pharmacies or dispensing doctors to order extra medicines and sell them abroad for higher prices. According to IMS health, 11% of the UK’s pharmacies and a small number of dispensing doctors exploit the system in this way in a trade worth more than £30 million ($47 million) a month.
This practice is not illegal in the EU. UK newspaper The Guardian also claims that before the value of the pound collapsed, UK wholesalers and pharmacies were buying and importing drugs that were cheaper in Europe.
To address the issue, the UK’s Minister for Health and Secretary of State have called for a summit to be held in early March with all those organizations involved in the supply of medicines.
“The government believes that this spirit of collaboration is the best way to further minimize the risks to patients,” said O’Brien. “That is why the Secretary of State and I have called a summit in early March 2010 with all those organizations involved in the supply of medicines to better understand the issues involved and what might be done to address them.”