Authorities looking at measures to deal with potential medicine shortages

An Apotheka pharmacy at Tartu University Hospital (TÜK).
An Apotheka pharmacy at Tartu University Hospital (TÜK). Source: Aili Vahtla/ERR

Medicine shortages may occur in Estonia as the coronavirus pandemic sees some pharmacies closing their doors due to employees quarantining, as well as possible delays in supply going forward as travel restrictions come into effect.

A total of nine pharmacies in Estonia have had to close temporarily in recent days, either due to illness or quarantining against coronavirus risk according to a report on ETV current affairs show "Aktuaalne kaamera", four of them in Tallinn.

The outlets will be closed until March 22, Kristin Raudsepp, director of the State Agency of Medicines (Raviamet) told "Aktuaalne kaamera".

The medicines agency in fact recommends shortened opening hours rather than full closure, particularly given the special training and expertise required which means the crossover currently taking place between hotel staff and store workers (with the latter often substituting for the former) is not possible.

If closure is unavoidable, a temporary solution should be found in concert with other outlets, social affairs minister Tanel Kiik (Center) said, adding that there will be no widespread disruptions so far as operation of pharmacies goes.

"At present, the availability of pharmacy services across Estonia is guaranteed; these problems have emerged, they are being addressed, but a situation where we could see a widespread decline in availability has not been seen," said Kiik.

A much more serious problem than the temporary closure of pharmacies is the difficulty of supplying medicines, it was reported. 

The medicines agency says it has recently received several reports that the transport of medicines through Europe has been blocked by border controls imposed recently by states in an effort to combat the virus' spread.

Kristin Raudsepp said the Estonian agency itself has already restricted the export of two drugs. 

"We have obligated wholesalers to inform us about any export plan for critical medicines, and first and foremost, we have suggested that other countries not restrict the transportation of medicines at the expense of their supply to other states," Raudsepp said.

A Europe-wide agreement is needed to enable vehicles transporting the medicines could cross borders in the first place, Raudsepp said, adding that there were no simple solutions as air traffic in many countries had also been curtailed.

"I hope that a solution is found here quickly and I am very sorry that it was not done earlier, rather than later; however, it will take unnecessary time to resolve any logistical confusion," said Raudsepp.

Drug sales in general have increased in both Estonia and Europe-wide, and people are encouraged to review their home supplies of over-the-counter medicines.

Kiik: Stocks now need to be handled sparingly

Tanel Kiik told "Aktuaalne kaamera" that Estonia was naturally dependent on partners and other states, adding regular contacts with various suppliers and pharmaceutical manufacturers to reduce supply risks are being maintained.

"We have mapped a lot of different supply options - from China, joint EU procurement, different suppliers from Europe, as well as local manufacturers, for personal protective equipment, and for basic pharmaceuticals," Kiik said.

"We are prepared for a situation where some deliveries do not arrive on time. If we act on multiple fronts at once, then our best know-how is brought to bear on a situation where all supplies are cut-off simultaneously," he went on.

The existing reserve of medicines needs to be handled with great caution, Kiik added, also a factor in hospitals being upgraded to preparedness level two, where many scheduled treatments have been delayed.

PERH was deprived of the ordered protective equipment

On Tuesday morning, the North Estonian Regional Hospital (PERH) discovered that protective equipment ordered for its staff from the Netherlands and the U.K. would not be arriving.

PERH was not yet able to say whether the equipment had been expropriated due to special circumstances in the countries of origin or whether the supplier unexpectedly sold the product to another bidder.

Pharmacy reform due to kick in April 1

The government's planned pharmacy reform is due to take effect on April 1. This would in theory transfer ownership of pharmacies to the dispensing pharmacists who work in the outlets, and away from the larger wholesalers.

No announcement has yet been made on whether this will still be going ahead or revised due to the coronavirus pandemic.

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Editor: Andrew Whyte

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