- To prepare for Brexit and coronavirus-led crisis, the UK government asked pharma companies to stockpile drugs.
- The government’s urge is in response to the pharmaceutical industry’s warning of June 2020, which said that the original stockpiles collected earlier had been used up completely.
- Leading virologists in the UK said the government has not considered expertise while giving the Covid-19 testing contracts to private sector companies.
In the past few days, two of the government’s decision related with the coronavirus-led crisis grabbed significant attention. The first one is about the government asking the pharmaceutical companies to stockpile medicines amid the likelihood of supply chain disruptions due to the coronavirus pandemic amid the Bexit deal. The second one presents criticism by the virologists regarding handling of the testing contracts. Below we present a discussion on the two decisions separately.
UK government asks pharma companies to stockpile drugs
The UK government has directed the country’s various pharmaceutical companies to create a stockpile of medicines as a step towards having better preparedness for the Brexit transition period approaching nearer. This urge comes after the pharmaceutical industry issued a warning in June 2020. The companies cautioned that the original stockpiles collected for no trade deal had been used up entirely and it would be difficult to restock before December 2020 (when the UK will leave the European Union (EU)) due to the challenges presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
The plea from the government holds special significance as the UK’s relationship with the EU after the final transition period remains uncertain as of now. The Department of Health in its letter to the medicine suppliers, which was made public on 3 August 2020, indicated that the Brexit transition period is unlikely to be extended post 31 December 2020. It pointed out that having a reserve of stocks will safeguard against all probable interference that could come up in the global supply chain amid the coronavirus pandemic. The government’s letter elaborated that it will request the suppliers to divulge their plans for any emergency situation regarding the end of the transition period. Besides, strengthening the relations developed with the suppliers in the past, this move will guarantee a synchronised way of working.
Concerning the issues of border control, the government emphasised on its plans to implement new border controls that would be finalised by July 2021. Given this, the government advised the medicine companies to avoid sending supplies on short routes.
Key points in the EU-UK trade deal
At an informal discussion held in London last month, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator focused on disagreements between the EU and the UK regarding a post-Brexit trade deal. On the other hand, the UK is firm on meeting the 31 December 2020 deadline to reach a deal. As the talks are yet to provide any progress, the major aspects revolve around issues of regulatory alignment, fisheries, justice and police cooperation, besides the governance of any deal. The next official level of talks is scheduled for 17 August 2020 in Brussels. However, it should be noted that Barnier, after the most recent round of talks, hinted that the trade deal which looks unlikely could be made possible if the UK shifted its positions.
Details of the warning issued by the pharmaceutical industry
The pharmaceutical industry had cautioned the government in June 2020 that they are running short on the stockpiles of medical supplies which have completely finished now, because of the coronavirus pandemic. In addition, the companies raised an alarm on the UK’s failure to reach a deal with the EU and mentioned that it would not be viable to build back the stockpiles again in time.
In its advice to the government, the pharmaceutical industry pointed that dual challenges comprising of the coronavirus pandemic and unlikelihood of striking a deal with the EU on the mutual trade post Brexit necessitated the need to buy and store several medicines. The industry also pleaded to guarantee the availability of alternative supply routes for an uninterrupted flow of supplies across the borders.
Virologists condemn government’s decision to give Covid-19 testing contracts to private companies
A group comprising of around 70 leading virologists in the UK have disapproved of the government’s decision to give the Covid-19 testing contracts to the private players. The virologists stated that it looks like a mistake on the part of the government to meaningfully handle the coronavirus crisis as testing contracts are issued on ideological grounds without taking into account the company’s expertise. In a letter sent in July 2020 to Professor Chris Whitty, England’s chief medical officer and Sir Patrick Vallance, the chief scientific adviser, the viral experts stressed that the government has undermined the virologist’s expertise in the entire matter. The letter stated that they were not consulted on necessary ways to deal with the pandemic. The virologists still await any response from the authorities on their letter.
In another instance of sidelining the country’s top virologists, the government launched the new 90-minute tests for Covid-19 on 3 August 2020 without having any discussions with them. The viral experts have been already using certain rapid tests, which are similar to the new ones. However, they deny on having any details of the tests like DnaNudge or LamPORE that the government is contracting to purchase. The viral experts consist of those who have been actively involved in testing related work for Covid-19 and most of them work in 40 NHS and the Public Health England (PHE) laboratories across the country.
The letter clearly expressed their worries regarding the policymakers not engaging with country’s leading virology experts to conduct Covid-19 testing for managing the coronavirus pandemic. The virologists highlighted that this will result in a lost opportunity to create a comprehensive testing framework including a coordinated and forceful approach. The letter had an additional focus on the underuse and under representation of some of the top talents and skill-sets available in the domain.
Suggestions by the virologists
The signatories in the letter brought into light the importance of data and emphasised that it needs to be incorporated into the National Health Service (NHS) data systems. In addition, the private testing centres and labs should partner with the NHS or Public Health England (PHE) diagnostic laboratories. The response mechanism for the coronavirus pandemic should be closely monitored to bring in the required changes through the coming winter season and beyond. Amid all these suggestions, the most crucial thing would be to connect with the clinical and academic virologists across the UK.
The government’s stand
A spokesperson from the government said that it has achieved a good speed in its measures to tackle the coronavirus crisis. Informing about the continuous and latest guidance from the scientific community, the spokesperson mentioned about Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) and its sub-committees. The approach is constantly reviewed according to the latest international and domestic evidences.
The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has kept the spotlight on the various steps taken by the government to manage the health crisis as well as the different coordinated efforts to align with the medical fraternity. The government has consulted with the health industry, pharmaceutical companies, and various experts in the field to deal with the unprecedented crisis. However, the ongoing fight against the illness calls for a more syncronised effort and strong coordination between all the related stakeholders, while bringing everyone to the same table.
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