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Uncertainty over post-Brexit drug availability, says medicines agency

The UK manufactures about 250 of the medicines Finland imports to treat various conditions.

Lääkepurkki auki apteekin pöydällä.
Image: Paulus Markkula / Yle

The UK’s withdrawal from the European Union could affect the availability of certain critical drugs in Finnish pharmacies, especially in the event of a disorderly Brexit. According to a report in the business daily Taloussanomat on Tuesday, it may even become impossible to acquire some preparations post-Brexit.

The Finnish Medicines Agency Fimea told the paper that Brexit could compromise the availability of dozens – if not hundreds -- of pharmaceutical preparations in Finland.

Fimea director Esa Heinonen told Taloussanomat that the situation is fluid, but would not disclose which medicines might become unavailable or how many people in Finland would be affected by possible shortages.

Drugs classified as critical include cancer medication or other medicines required for long-term care, and for which there is no similar or alternative medication.

UK a major EU pharma player

Drug companies in Finland are required to inform Fimea of possible disruptions in their supply chains two months in advance of the expected interruptions. However so far, no companies have filed any notifications with respect to Brexit, which is expected to take effect on 29 March.

"It’s possible that drug companies will make larger drug batches than usual at the beginning of the year to ensure initial availability, but supply problems will begin about six months after that. It may also be that the companies behind the drugs will take appropriate action regarding Brexit to ensure that no problems arise," Heinonen added.

It is not yet known when and how the UK will depart the EU. Finland is said to be preparing for a so-called hard Brexit, in which Britain will leave the bloc without an agreement to govern future relations. This would mean that drugs manufactured in the UK would be subject to customs checks.

Alongside France and Germany, the UK is one of the EU’s most important players in the EU pharmaceuticals industry. About 250 of the medicines Finland imports for use in humans are manufactured in Britain, accounting for roughly five percent of all pharmaceuticals sold in Finland.

Head of Finland’s pharma lobby group Sanna Lauslahti said a majority of drug manufacturers have relocated personnel and operations out of the UK and continue to do so. Fimea’s assessment of the Brexit impact reflects this phenomenon.

Buffer stocks offer protection

According to Taloussanomat, Brexit may also jeopardise the availability of other medications imported into Finland, however there are similar or alternative medicines for non-critical drugs.

Lauslahti also stressed that increasing the manufacture and market release of medicines before Brexit place is likely to ensure they are also available post-Brexit.

"In addition Finland also has buffer stocks that will offer some protection if the drug in question is a critical medicine. The pharmaceutical industry will do everything in its power to ensure the availability of medication," she declared.

Meanwhile Fimea’s Heinonen said that it is also possible to craft separate special arrangements to safeguard drug supplies.

Both experts said that the average person will feel little impact post-Brexit. However it is not yet known how the UK’s departure will affect Finland’s ten most-sold drugs, including medicines such as Burana.

Doctors will likely modify patients’ treatment plans if a critical drug is no longer available. Head of the Finnish Medical Association Kati Myllymäki told Taloussanomat that physicians are awaiting more information from Fimea about the impact of Brexit.

Fimea has said that it will be meeting with different stakeholders in February to discuss the issue.

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