Pharmaceutical companies accused of cutting supplies because of low profits and unpaid bills
Elizabeth Sukkar and Helena Smith in Athens
guardian.co.uk, 27 February 2013
Greece is facing a serious shortage of medicines amid claims that pharmaceutical multinationals have halted shipments to the country because of the economic crisis and concerns that the drugs will be exported by middlemen because prices are higher in other European countries.
Hundreds of drugs are in short supply and the situation is getting worse, according to the Greek drug regulator. The government has drawn up a list of more than 50 pharmaceutical companies it accuses of halting or planning to halt supplies because of low prices in the country.
More than 200 medicinal products are affected, including treatments for arthritis, hepatitis C and hypertension, cholesterol-lowering agents, antipsychotics, antibiotics, anaesthetics and immunomodulators used to treat bowel disease.
Separately, it was announced on Tuesday that the Swiss Red Cross was slashing its supply of donor blood to Greece because it had not paid its bills on time.
Chemists in Athens describe chaotic scenes with desperate customers going from pharmacy to pharmacy to look for prescription drugs that hospitals could no longer dispense.
The government list includes some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies, such as Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi, GlaxoSmithKline and AstraZeneca. Pfizer, Roche and Sanofi all said a few products had been withheld. GSK and AstraZeneca denied the claims.
“Companies are ceasing these supplies because Greece is not profitable for them and they are worried that their products will be exported by traders to other richer countries through parallel trade as Greece has the lowest medicine prices in Europe,” said Professor Yannis Tountas, the president of the Greek drug regulator, the National Organisation for Medicines.
The regulator has investigated 13 pharmaceutical companies that have reduced supplies and has handed the names of eight to the ministry of health so they can be fined. Tountas did not disclose the names of the companies, saying this was the responsibility of the ministry of health, but added that they were “big multinational companies”.
The body representing pharmacists, the Panhellenic Pharmaceutical Association, confirmed the shortages. “I would say supplies are down by 90%,” said Dimitris Karageorgiou, its secretary general. “The companies are ensuring that they come in dribs and drabs to avoid prosecution. Everyone is really frightened. Customers tell me they are afraid [about] losing access to medication altogether.” He said many also worried insurance coverage would dry up.
“Around 300 drugs are in very short supply and they include innovative drugs, medications for cancer patients and people suffering from clinical depression,” said Karageorgiou. “It’s a disgrace. The government is panic-stricken and the multinationals only think about themselves and the issue of parallel trade because wholesalers can legally sell them to other European nations at a higher price.”
The Hellenic Association of Pharmaceutical Companies said the picture was more nuanced. Its president, Frouzis Konstantinos, said there were “probably a very few companies” that were not supplying the Greek market, and only for very specific products — “the reasons being a combination of Greece’s low medicine prices and unpaid debt by the state”, he said.