COVID-19: Supply Chain Disruptions Could Lead to Drug Shortage in Canada

Canadians should be preparing for drug shortages as COVID-19 disrupts global supply lines, the federal health ministry’s top public servant says.

The lack of drugs to cover regular prescriptions is a long-standing problem in Canada, but Deputy Health Minister Stephen Lucas says the COVID-19 pandemic is exacerbating the problem.

“We are predicting a shortage of drugs in light of global demand,” he told the House of Commons health committee.

According to the Canadian Pharmacists Association, a large majority of drugs and their active ingredients come from China and India. COVID-19 has severely disrupted operations in these countries, which could have an impact on the global supply chain.

“In a few months, we will see the effects of the shutdown in China,” said the association’s spokesperson Barry Power.

Pharmacists have also noticed shortages due to people stockpiling their prescription drugs, which is jeopardizing future supply, Power said. There was a huge rush in March when people were trying to get their medications on a long-term basis. Because of the social distancing measures in place, some people were asking for a six-month supply, he said.
For the same period, there was a shortage of some over-the-counter drugs such as acetaminophen or Tylenol.
Wholesalers began to warn that demand was unsustainable, especially considering the pressure on supply chains.

After seeing the toilet paper fiasco, pharmacists decided to take action, Power said. To prevent shortages, some recommend limiting patients to one month’s supply of their medications.
Pharmacists are particularly concerned about patients taking medications for heart disease, asthma, other lung diseases and diabetes, as they risk ending up in hospital if they cannot get their medications.

Mr. Lucas said the government has set up a dedicated team that is working with regulators in the United States, Australia and Europe to try to identify potential supply chain breaks and determine the impact they could have on pharmaceuticals and medical devices.

“In addition, we are taking steps to find alternatives and allow the importation of other products that can help remedy the situation,” said Mr Lucas.

Recently, the House of Commons passed a massive bill giving the government the power to respond to the COVID-19 outbreak with measures to prevent drug shortages.
The government will be able to implement any new regulations it deems necessary to prevent or alleviate shortages, however these have not been revealed.
The government has also planned to allow manufacturers to design products needed during the health crisis, regardless of patent protections. This would allow more manufacturers to produce drugs that are out of stock

“However, opportunities are limited when drugs and their key ingredients are in short supply around the world”, Power said.

For example, the government could expedite the approval of alternative drugs already approved in countries with similar standards to Canada.
Authorities could call for increased local production of the drugs most in demand. However, if the key ingredients are not available, that won’t help much either.

While Canada has not yet felt the full impact of the supply problems, Power said he expects this to happen soon.
It could get worse if COVID-19 infiltrates the workforce of wholesalers, which could lead to the total closure of warehouses, he said.
These problems will only exacerbate the drug shortages that Canada has been facing for years. On average, companies are reporting about five new drug shortages per week, according to the pharmacists’ association.

In 2018, it commissioned a survey of more than 1,700 pharmacists across the country, which found that almost 80 percent of them felt that drug shortages had increased over the past three to five years.