COVID breaks the chain

COVID breaks the chain

“A wise human would have an understanding of the supply chain and how the pieces fit together. But it’s against our nature to think about it. (Paolo Bacigalupi)

There is no denying that the COVID-19 pandemic has ravaged the globe, leaving in its wake death and severely ill patients. The novelty of this virus and the speed of its spread have meant there is no specialised cure. Instead, health professionals and pharma companies alike have struggled to repurpose existing drugs in an attempt to treat those that have contracted the disease.

This has resulted in many countries having to break from the authorised prescribing practices in their efforts to find a drug or combination of drugs to defeat the virus or treat its varied symptoms.

From a pharmacovigilance perspective, this unique situation presents many opportunities that could result in a reduction in patient safety. To ensure this does not happen, major regulatory authorities including the FDA, the UK MRHA and the EMA have revised guidelines, set up special reporting websites and pleaded for all and any, valid or suspect, adverse events to be reported, particularly related to COVID-19 treatments.

So – while the regulatory authorities are encouraging patients and healthcare practitioners to be vigilant with safety related to COVID-19, there is also a growing concern for safety issues relating to continuity of treatments for conditions not related to COVID-19. These concerns stem from:

  • the interruption in the supply chain for Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) and manufactured novel and generic drugs
  • the unfounded fear that certain medications for cardiovascular and rheumatic diseases could increase the chances of contracting COVID-19.

There is a strong possibility that the financial burden forced on healthcare systems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic will increase prescription of generic rather than branded drugs in an attempt to cut costs and contain budgets.

The irony is that the enforced boarder closures and the prolonged lockdowns first in China and then in India has had a huge impact on the ability of these two dominant countries to produce and distribute both generic agents and the APIs they are manufactured from. China and India are responsible for more than 80% of the APIs used to make drugs sold in Europe; together they host 31% of the world’s FDA-registered API-manufacturing plants. Furthermore, India supplies 40% of the World’s generic drugs, and before it was affected by the pandemic, was making strides to increase its API-manufacturing capacity to become less reliant on China for its chemical supplies.

The reality that the world is majorly reliant on two countries for its ability to provide pharmaceuticals is a concern, especially when we see how quickly the supply chains were impacted by enforced lockdowns.

Interestingly, even before the outbreak of COVID-19, Europe was keen to bring back drug manufacturing to its home lands so not to rely so heavily on imported materials. In the US, however, the concept of drugs made in America is being met with some resistance. Perhaps the huge disruption COVID-19 has had in terms of being able to heal and protect ourselves, maybe the catalyst required to rethink the concept of putting all our drugs in one basket.

With respect to generics, there is a misconception that they do not “work the same way” as branded medicines. Small molecule generics need only demonstrate bioequivalence to a reference product within an accepted 80%-125% margin of difference; generic agents do not have to demonstrate bioequivalence with each other. There is a concern two generic agents can legitimately have a 45% difference in their bioavailabilities. However, the FDA has stated over a 12-year period the average difference in drug absorption between branded and generic agents was 3.5%.

Adverse events occurring in patients switching to, or between generic agents is not unheard of, and in some cases it is the excipients and bulking agents that are the culprits. In an attempt to avoid drug shortages, some countries have changed to prescribing practices permitting only one instead of three months’ supply. This could result in more frequent “generic swapping”, particularly as the duration of the pandemic extends. If this happens, we must rely on patients and healthcare practitioners to report their experiences. And for generic manufacturers extra vigilance regarding literature monitoring is prudent since generic products may be more frequently prescribed than before.

It is not only generic drugs per se that may be cause for concern. The FDA recently highlighted the importance of drug packaging in terms of safe use. In response to a shortage of a neuromuscular blocking agent, required for intubation of COVID-19 patients, the temporary production of a similar drug was permitted without the usual warnings on the bottles. Although the two contain the same active ingredient, Propoven 2% (the drug under EUA) is double the concentration of the FDA-authorised Diprivan; the lack of warnings could lead to accidental overdose if practitioners are not aware of the temporary replacement.

I believe that, especially in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, “pharmaco-extra-vigilance” practices are necessary regarding literature monitoring to ensure all safety events, particularly those categorised as special situations, are captured. Not only for drugs directly involved in the treatment of the virus and its pathological symptoms, but also for branded and generic drugs that will have been impacted by the global disruptions in the supply chains resulting from the waves of lockdown that have swept the globe.

Image by Shaojie on Unsplash.