Medicine shortages in the EU: causes and solutions 


Find out why there is a shortage of medicines, the impact of the coronavirus pandemic and how Parliament wants to improve the situation.

The Covid-19 health crisis has highlighted a growing problem: shortages of medicines and medical equipment that put patients at risk and national health systems under pressure.

In April 2020, the European University Hospital Alliance warned that rising demand in intensive care units for certain anaesthetics, antibiotics, muscle relaxants and medicines used in a way they were not originally approved for to treat Covid-19 could mean stocks run out.

Decreased production, logistical problems, export bans and stockpiling due to the health crisis further increased the risk of bottlenecks.

On 17 September, Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the EU to become more self-sufficient in health issues by securing supplies, restoring local drug manufacturing and ensuring better EU coordination of national health strategiess.

What causes medicine shortages?

Between 2000 and 2018, shortages in the EU increased 20-fold and according to a note by the European Commission are rising for widely used essential products.

More than 50%  ; Medicines to treat cancer, infections and disorders of the nervous system (epilepsy, Parkinson’s) account for more than half of those in short supply

The reasons are complex, ranging from manufacturing problems, industry quotas, legal parallel trade and unexpected peaks in demand following epidemics or natural disasters to pricing, which is decided at national level.

The EU is increasingly dependent on non-EU countries - mainly India and China - when it comes to the production of active pharmaceutical ingredients, chemical raw materials and medicines.

What solutions is Parliament proposing?

In the resolution MEPs welcome the new EU health programme EU4Health aiming to make medicines and medical equipment more available and call for boosting pharmaceutical production in Europe and setting minimum quality standards for healthcare.

They also want to:

  • introduce financial incentives to encourage producers of active pharmaceutical ingredients to locate in Europe and to screen foreign direct investment in manufacturing plant,
  • create an EU contingency reserve of medicines of strategic importance, which would function as an emergency European pharmacy, reducing the risk of shortages
  • exchange best practices in stock management
  • increase joint EU procurement of medicines
  • facilitate the movement of medicines between EU member states

Parliament had already called for better traceability of research and development costs, public funding and market expenditure to make medicines more affordable in a resolution adopted in 2017.

The Commission issued guidelines to tackle shortages due to the coronavirus outbreak in April. It called on EU countries to lift export bans and avoid stockpiling; increase and reorganise production; ensure optimal use in hospitals by reallocating stocks; consider alternative medicines; and optimise sales in pharmacies.

An EU pharmaceutical strategy

The Commission is expected to propose updates of pharmaceutical legislation in 2022. In November 2021, the Parliament set out a series of recommendations. MEPs called for shorter approval times by national agencies and alignment with the European Medecines Agency to ensure rapid and equal access to medicines in the EU.

MEPs urged the Commission to address the root causes of shortages and propose sustainable solutions including the timely entry into the market of generic medicines. Parliament stressed the need to strengthen EU manufacturing and supply resilience as well as increase transparency on prices and public funding for research and development.