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UK drug manufacturing needs to be stepped up to combat future shortages

Written by Science

The shortage of PPE and ventilators has provided a huge challenge in the response to the coronavirus in this country. However, the supplies of some over-the-counter medication and other drugs integral in hospital care are reported to be dwindling and the NHS have had to introduce rationing for some products so they don’t run out.

The shortages seen have been attributed to the breakdown of supply chains because of  industrial disruption and increased demand worldwide as a result of COVID-19. Around 80-90% of common medications in the UK are imported, with India and China being the top suppliers outside of the EU. Both India and China are popular locations for drug manufacturing, often, unfortunately, due to reduced costs for companies because of cheaper labour as well as reduced health and safety compliance costs, but also due to material availability. Although this reduced production price may make the drug cheaper in the long run, the import prices can make the availability of the drug in the UK, especially for use on the NHS, more problematic.

Around 80-90% of common medications in the UK are imported.

The materials or compounds needed for a drug are often sourced from multiple different suppliers and breakdown or shortages for just one of these suppliers results in the inability to produce the drug. When there is increased demand for a drug, like those used in intensive care units for COVID-19 treatment, import prices go up and the availability of the drug goes down. Increasing our development and manufacturing capabilities will provide some resilience to these problems.

Becoming more self-sufficient in manufacturing drugs that are needed in the UK would allow us to be more prepared for shortages and drugs will be more accessible for use. The challenges seen during this time may only be the beginning of the issues this country faces, a no deal Brexit may also impact our availability of drugs in this country. This is frighteningly apparent when you consider we import all our insulin from overseas, and almost half a million people’s lives are dependent on insulin injections. Similarly, a significant portion of inhalers are imported.

We import all our insulin from overseas, and almost half a million people are dependent on insulin injections.

Investment and subsidies will be required for improving and expanding the infrastructure of this country for drug manufacturing. Collaboration of government and scientific communities in industry and academia is necessary to achieve functional, modern drug production facilities like the ones seen at the new Medicines Manufacturing Centre in Scotland with funding coming from governments, industry and universities.

Last modified: 26th May 2020

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