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The UK government has asked pharmaceutical companies to carry out a risk assessment on the possible impact of the novel coronavirus outbreak on their supply chains. It has also suggested that firms retain any stockpiles of medicines they might have built up in advance of a possible “no-deal” Brexit in case they are needed in the event of product shortages.

“We are not aware of any current medicine shortages linked to this novel coronavirus, but we are putting in place common-sense measures as a precaution to help to ensure the uninterrupted supply of medicines to UK patients,” health minister Nicola Blackwood declared.

The coronavirus outbreak originated in the Chinese municipality of Wuhan and was notified to the World Health Organization on 31 December last year. The WHO has just announced that the disease caused by the virus has been named “Covid-19” (coronavirus disease 2019), while the virus itself has been given the taxonomic name of SARS-CoV-2.

As a result of the outbreak, the Chinese government has imposed restrictions on movement within China, including travel by air and rail. Concern has also been expressed that a slowdown in manufacturing due to the late re-opening of factories after the extended Chinese New Year holidays could hit the supply of active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and other materials from Chinese companies.

The raw material trading company Kemiex said that a survey of 97 professional buyers, traders and producers showed that 35% of them expected a high impact and 50% a low impact on supplies of APIs, feed and food additives. “The biggest impact is expected from extended Chinese New Year holidays and delayed production start, as seasonal maintenance and safety inspections seem to be affected too,” it noted. There have recently been calls for the industry to mount a coordinated response to threats posed to the supply chain by the coronavirus. (Also see "Coronavirus Supply Chain Threats Demand Coordinated Industry Response" - Pink Sheet, 5 Feb, 2020.)

Using The UK Stockpiles

The UK has “world-class systems in place to prevent supply problems and we are working closely with industry and partners to prevent shortages and ensure the risks to patients are minimised,” Blackwood said.

It’s not clear exactly how the retention of pre-Brexit drug stockpiles might contribute to this effort, but the government clearly sees it as an option. The stockpiling was requested by the government last year in case there was disruption at ports if the UK left the EU without a deal. (Also see "Longer Medicine Supply Delays Expected In No-Deal Brexit" - Pink Sheet, 20 Sep, 2019.) 

In a 10 February blog for member companies, the CEO of the UK BioIndustry Association, Steve Bates, said: Some of you may still hold Brexit stockpiles and are now being asked to retain these as a precaution until more information can be given regarding individual products, due to the rapidly changing picture.”

In China, he said, “the nature and spread of the disease combined with the unclear pace of the industrial restart after the Chinese New Year holiday, means the picture for key global supply chain outputs needed for our sector is uncertain.”

Bates added that the Department of Health and Social Care ran a webinar last week to brief companies in the medicines supply chain about the coronavirus. “Companies have been asked to conduct a full risk assessment of supply chains, including where suppliers source their components. The department noted it may not be immediately obvious that China is a source.” The department also advised companies to monitor their orders carefully to see whether there were any unusual patterns of demand, he said.

UK Vaccine Funding, New Diagnostic Test

Earlier this month, the DHSC announced that it was investing £20m to support work on developing new vaccines for epidemics, including three new programs on vaccines for tackling Covid-19. The funding will go to the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations, a global partnership among public, private, philanthropic and civil society organizations that was launched in 2017 to develop vaccines against future epidemics.

Meanwhile, Public Health England said that a diagnostic test it has developed for the coronavirus is being distributed to labs across the UK this week. “We have now trained scientists in labs across the UK to conduct the specialist test – ensuring that we are well prepared should we begin to see an increased number of cases across the country,” the PHE said.

“PHE also has the capability to sequence the viral genome and compare this to published sequences from China, if a case occurs. This will provide valuable information on any mutations in the virus over time and allow an improved understanding of how it spreads,” the government declared.

“The roll-out to other parts of the UK is the fastest deployment of a novel test to PHE and NHS [National Health Service] labs in recent history, including in the Swine flu pandemic in 2009,” PHE said, adding that it is now working as a reference laboratory for the WHO, testing samples from countries that do not have assured testing capabilities.

Wellcome Wants Sharing Of Research

Meanwhile, the independent Wellcome foundation has called on researchers, journals and funders to “ensure that research findings and data relevant to this outbreak are shared rapidly and openly to inform the public health response and help save lives.”

Among other things, it said, researchers should “share interim and final research data relating to the outbreak, together with protocols and standards used to collect the data, as rapidly and widely as possible – including with public health and research communities and the WHO.”

Bates welcomed the call, saying that he was “keen to know of other work, especially that of UK SMEs, which may be relevant, which we will share with the government and other agencies.”

Companies in the UK and the rest of Europe were recently urged by industry representative bodies to contribute any products they might have for detecting, diagnosing or treating Covid-19, and emergency funding is being offered by the EU for research into the characteristics of the virus. (Also see "EU Firms Called In As Coronavirus Cases Soar" - Pink Sheet, 5 Feb, 2020.)


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