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Medicines shortages

Paracetamol sold for more than £50 per tablet on online bidding sites

Exclusive: Prices for paracetamol tablets online and in independent community pharmacies has jumped considerably since the COVID-19 outbreak.

Empty supermarket shelves

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The Competition and Markets Authority has launched a COVID-19 taskforce, following concerns that businesses might exploit the pandemic to take advantage of people by charging excessive prices

Open access article

The Royal Pharmaceutical Society has made this article free to access in order to help healthcare professionals stay informed about an issue of national importance.

To learn more about coronavirus, please visit: https://www.rpharms.com/resources/pharmacy-guides/wuhan-novel-coronavirus

Packets of paracetamol are being sold via online bidding sites at increasingly inflated prices amid concerns around shortages resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, The Pharmaceutical Journal has found.

In one example, on 19 March 2020, 240 tablets of paracetamol (Panadol; GSK) 500mg were being sold on eBay by a vendor in Sri Lanka for £12,500.

This is over 500 times the retail price at Boots, which is currently £1.69 for 16 tablets of Panadol Advance

In another case, bids for 144 tablets of the same brand of paracetamol reached over £250.

Paracetamol price hikes have also been highlighted by customers visiting community pharmacies in the UK.

On 19 March 2020, two Twitter users highlighted that their local pharmacies were charging £9.99 for 32 paracetamol tablets, up substantially from £1.39 the week before. Another Twitter user reported that their local independent pharmacy’s own-brand paracetamol suspensions had doubled in price.

Some branches of Jhoots Pharmacy, an independent community pharmacy chain which owns more than 80 pharmacies, have also been revealed to be one of the pharmacies hiking up paracetamol prices. 

In a statement shared on Twitter on 19 March 2020, the West Midlands-based chain said that following an investigation, it had found that the price increases had been made at branch level and that all those affected would be refunded. 

“In order to rectify the issue we will make full refunds to our customers affected by this and have taken all appropriate action to ensure that this does not happen again,” it said.

Commenting on the price changes, a spokesperson for the National Pharmacy Association (NPA) said: “It’s important that no-one in the supply chain, including pharmacies, breaches good faith with their customers by introducing unjustifiable mark-ups.

“This kind of story must not be allowed to obscure the fact that pharmacists up and down the land are providing a heroic service on the health service frontline.”

On 20 March 2020, the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) had launched a COVID-19 taskforce following concerns that businesses might exploit the pandemic to take advantage of people by charging excessive prices or making misleading claims about their products.

The taskforce will scrutinise market developments to identify harmful sales and pricing practices as they emerge and warn firms suspected of exploiting these exceptional circumstances through unjustifiable prices or misleading claims.

The CMA added in a statement released on 20 March 2020 that it had already contacted traders and platforms regarding excessive pricing of hand sanitiser.

“This is obviously a time when we all have to behave responsibly to protect our fellow citizens, and particularly those who are most vulnerable” said Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA.

“We urge retailers to behave responsibly in the exceptional circumstances of the COVID-19 outbreak.

“But if they do not, our taskforce is monitoring market developments to enable us to intervene as quickly as possible. We have a range of options at our disposal, from warnings to enforcement action to seeking emergency powers.”

On 19 March 2020, the NPA highlighted that while pharmacies are still able to procure prescription only medicine packs of paracetamol, many pharmacies are reporting ongoing shortages of paracetamol 500mg tablets as pharmacy and general sales list packs.

In an interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on 16 March 2020, Simon Dukes, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, said that there had been a “300–400% in demand for ibuprofen and paracetamol over the past ten days”. 

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20207846

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