Coronavirus a 'wake-up call' for Canada's prescription drug supply

Canadian pharmacies are limiting how much medication can be dispensed to try to prevent shortages, recognizing that most active ingredients for drugs come from India and China and medical supply chains have been disrupted by the spread of COVID-19.

Provincial regulatory colleges are complying with the Canadian Pharmacists Association call to limit the amount of medications given to patients to 30-day supplies. The goal is to stop people from refilling prescriptions early and to ensure life-saving drugs don't run short when supply chains are vulnerable.

Mina Tadrous is a pharmacist and researcher in Toronto who monitors pharmaceutical supplies.

He is worried Canadians will start stockpiling drugs after watching what has been unfolding in the U.S. and other regions as the virus spreads. 

He said pharmacists are concerned about drugs such as life-saving inhalers that people might stockpile based on misinformation circulating about potential treatments for COVID-19.

"It's that relationship of how people are reacting rather than the actual supply of medications," he said. 

Tadrous said pharmacies get their medications and supplies from wholesalers, who get theirs from distributors who source them from manufacturers. Outside of wholesalers, most of that supply chain is outside of Canada. 

Ongoing shortages

Dr. Jacalyn Duffin of Queen's University in Kingston, Ont., has long warned about the increasing frequency of drug shortages, including nearly 2,000 ongoing shortages, none of which she attributes to coronavirus.

Kas Roussy/CBC

Given that China and India produce 80 per cent of the active ingredients of prescription drugs sold in North America, supply disruptions are expected eventually, Duffin said.

"I think that the coronavirus outbreak is a big wake-up call for us to pay attention to our drug shortages that exist already and to pay attention to where our drugs come from," she said.

India, a major supplier of generic drugs to Europe, has already shut down the export of some antibiotics and drugs for hypertension, blood pressure and acetaminophen, Duffin said.

As a precaution, the federal government has enacted sweeping legislation that gives it the right to force patented drugmakers to make more medicine if necessary and remove patents as part of the response to the public health emergency.