EU health ministers warn COVID-19 could lead to drug shortage
Toni Waterman from Brussels
European Union health ministers raised concerns over the potential for drug shortages if the COVID-19 outbreak continues to keep China in a near lockdown.
At an emergency meeting on Thursday in Brussels, France's Agnès Buzyn warned of "breaks in supply chains," while Finland's Minister said COVID-19 could exacerbate what is already an ongoing problem in Europe.
"As you all know too well, medical shortages are a common phenomenon in Europe these days, even without unforeseen situations like this epidemic,"said Krista Kiuru, Finland's Minister of Family Affairs and Social Services.
EU Health Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said there is no evidence Europe is experiencing a shortage and that a task force is keeping tabs on supplies. She also said the Commission would launch a joint procurement plan to purchase medical equipment.
According to Eurostat data, 6 percent of the EU's medicinal and pharmaceutical imports came from China in 2018.
But that doesn't capture the full picture because China also produces some of the key ingredients other countries use to manufacture antibiotics, painkillers and diabetes drugs. India, for example, is the world's largest generic drugs exporter, but it sources the bulk of its raw pharmaceutical materials from China.
Certain countries like Luxembourg are particularly vulnerable. It has no pharmaceutical industry and imports all of its drugs and medical equipment.
Some health ministers also raised questions around the free movement of people within Europe, with some stressing the need for a common approach.
Health is considered a national competency in the EU and each member state decides for itself whether to impose measures like border screenings, travel bans or mandatory quarantine. Italy is currently the only member state to enforce a ban on incoming and outgoing flights to China.
German Health Minister Jens Spahn said there's "little point" in taking unilateral action, and that a common approach is needed.
Croatian Health Minister Vili Beros said if the situation deteriorates, further action could be taken.
"If that means the closing of borders we should discuss it, and in line with national legislation, we shall bring the appropriate response."
For now, closing the Shengen travel area is a remote possibility and one which some member states would like to avoid. They're instead choosing to focus on stepping up preparations and organizing a common approach to the virus.
"Fragmentation of effort will make us all collectively more vulnerable. Unity on our part would also support China's efforts to contain the virus, and mitigate any further transmission within and into the EU," Kyriakides said.
There have been 44 confirmed cases of the COVID-19 virus across Europe, with the majority of cases in Germany, France and the United Kingdom.