Pharmacists in the UK and US are warning of shortages of cold and flu medicines, with an early winter season surge in respiratory infections leaving manufacturers struggling to keep up with demand.
Some pharmacies are finding it hard to order over-the-counter drugs such as cough syrups and painkillers, restricting what customers can purchase, while some wholesalers are rationing the available medicines.
Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the UK’s Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies, said shortages — combined with other frustrations such as not being able to get hold of a GP family doctor — meant pharmacists on the frontline were dealing with a rise in abuse and violence from patients.
She called on the UK government to bring together stakeholders and address problems in the supply chain. “We are running out of basic cold and flu medicines. As soon as demand goes up for something, we are falling on our faces. Supply cannot meet demand,” she said.
Sufferers are buying the medicines to treat the symptoms of Covid-19, flu, and other conditions, including Strep-A and RSV, which have seen a resurgence after two winters of lockdowns. The supply problems come on top of a global shortage of antibiotics that led the UK to issue a serious shortage protocol for formulations given to children last month.
Adrian van den Hoven, director-general of Medicines for Europe, which represents generic drugmakers, said they had anticipated an increase in demand compared with the last two years, but had not expected it to come earlier than a normal cold and flu season.
He said governments should be sharing more data on infection rates — beyond what is already collected on Covid-19 and flu — so manufacturers can adapt supply chains, which takes several months.
“We are not epidemiologists. We don’t know exactly what it is going to look like: will 2022-2023 be an off year, or is it going to look like this for the next five years?” he said.
In the UK, pharmacy industry associations are reporting shortages of treatments including Reckitt Benckiser’s Lemsip and Haleon’s Beechams and Day and Night Nurse.
Superdrug, one of the UK’s largest pharmacy chains, confirmed that shortages were a “national issue”, saying there had been a “huge peak in demand for both branded and own-brand cold and flu products”. Demand for Superdrug-branded remedies had been above their highest level in the acute phase of the pandemic, the company said.
Pharmacists reported increases in prices for antibiotics amid last month’s shortage. But Paras Shah, executive director at UK wholesaler Sigma, said the prices of over-the-counter remedies did not react to market conditions as quickly as the prices of prescription drugs.
In the US, CVS pharmacies have limited purchases of children’s pain relief products to two per customer since last month. Walgreens has restricted online customers to six per transaction to “prevent excess purchasing behaviour”.
Johnson & Johnson, which makes Tylenol and Motrin pain relief, said its production sites were operating around the clock to deal with “high consumer demand driven by an extremely challenging cold and flu season”.
Consumer health groups said the shortages were driven by the jump in demand rather than problems securing underlying ingredients. Reckitt reported “significantly increased demand” but said it was doing all it could to minimise disruption. Haleon said it was increasing its supply capacity but customers in some regions might experience shortages.