Pharmacy guild of australia
(Image: Getty)

Australia is heavily reliant on overseas supply chains for access to pharmaceutical drugs. And there are already signs that shortages may be on the way. 

Last week India, the world’s main supplier of generic drugs, restricted the export of 26 pharmaceutical ingredients and the medicines made from them — including paracetamol.

This is due to supply chain interruptions from the coronavirus. India is one of the biggest manufacturers of pharmaceuticals, and sources a lot of raw ingredients from China. 

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the biosecurity research program at UNSW Medicine, said India’s decision could have far-reaching impacts for Australia. 

“We get more drugs from India than China so that could be a problem. And the effects of these supply problems can be delayed. We’ve got certain supplies here, but once those are exhausted, that may be when we start seeing an impact.”

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer said it had not yet seen any disruption in its supply chain or impact to its business. 

“At this time, the ban does not impact the export of products from our sites in India,” a spokesperson said.

‘Be prepared’

The Therapeutic Goods Administration is meeting with stakeholders this week to discuss how the coronavirus may impact drug supplies. There are reports the federal government is preparing to sock pile vital medicines.

MacIntyre said Australia was vulnerable to shortages because most pharmaceutical drugs were not stockpiled here, but imported on an “as needed” basis. 

“Even the ones made in India source the raw ingredients from China. So it’s a bit of an unknown as to how we will be affected. We should be prepared.”

But the message from Health Minister Greg Hunt — who in January posed for photos in front of pallets of medical supplies — is that Australia’s medical supplies are “well stocked”, particularly when it comes to things like face masks and protective equipment. 

“We do have strong supply chains. As part of our job, that is one of the items that was a specific Commonwealth action item,” he said last month. 

The crisis could also force the government to set up new drug manufacturing sites in Australia. 

Victorian Minister for Health Jenny Mikakos has suggested such a move could be on the table.

“Of course, a lot of our supply chain, our suppliers, are actually from overseas,” she said

“As demand grows internationally, and perhaps some supplies in China might be impacted by their own local manufacturing having been shut down, we need to be innovative. We need to nimble. So Greg and I have been having discussions around local manufacturers here in Victoria that might be able to scale up their production.” 

Check the medicine cabinet

Australia does keep a small reserve of drugs, vaccines, antidotes and protective equipment at the National Medical Stockpile, which, according to its website — last updated in 2014 — is intended to “supplement” holdings of drugs and protective equipment held by state and territory health authorities.

It also holds a “limited supply of highly specialised drugs” that, in an emergency, may not be available elsewhere within the Australian pharmaceutical supply system.

The CEO of the Consumers Health Forum, Leanne Wells, said she was concerned about access to medication, particularly in the case of a quarantine situation. 

“We would like to see community pharmacy step up and do home deliveries to people who are self-isolating and don’t have family or friends who can pick up their regular scripts,” she said.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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