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Competition watchdog to monitor price hikes during COVID-19 outbreak as pharmacists report rising cost of drugs

The government body responsible for monitoring business competition and preventing anti-competitive activities, the Competition and Markets Authority, has warned retailers against taking advange of the coronavirus outbreak.

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.

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Retailers have been urged to “behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices” amid reports of price hikes and panic buying

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has warned retailers against hiking prices in an attempt “to take advantage of people” as COVID-19 continues to spread.

The CMA told The Pharmaceutical Journal that its warning to retailers was prompted by the rising cost of hand sanitiser.

When asked whether it would also be looking at medicine price increases as a result of the SARS-COV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19, the CMA said it was not focusing on specific sectors, but instead would be guided by the information acquired during its monitoring.

It added in a statement, published on 5 March 2020, that it will use its findings to “assess whether it should advise the government to consider taking direct action to regulate prices”.

Andrea Coscelli, chief executive of the CMA, said: “We urge retailers to behave responsibly throughout the coronavirus outbreak and not to make misleading claims or charge vastly inflated prices.”

The CMA’s warning comes as pharmacists have reported rising costs of paracetamol following the news that India would cease parallel exporting of the drug.

Speaking to The Pharmaceutical Journal, Mayank Patel, chair of Merton, Sutton and Wandsworth Local Pharmaceutical Committee (LPC), said he has seen the cost of paracetamol rise by between five- and ten-fold, depending on the supplier.

“There have [been continual shortages] for the past year — lots of problems with obtaining vital medication,” he said, adding that India’s export ban has made the situation “even worse”.

“Due to that, every single supplier in the market has decided to increase their price.”

Patel added that his contractors are facing situations where “manufacturers and suppliers are limiting supplies”.

Mike Hewitson, a pharmacist at Beaminster Pharmacy in Dorset, said the cost of paracetamol rose from 46p a pack on 28 February 2020 to £4.99 on 6 March 2020.

”That’s an 11 fold increase in a week,” he said. ”Of course, the NHS drug tariff prices were a couple of quid a pack so if anyone is buying it at £5 a pack, then they’re going to be losing significant amounts of money.”

Anne-Marie King, chief officer of Northamptonshire LPC, also reported shortages and increased prices of paracetamol and ibuprofen since the virus began to spread.

And she added that pharmacies are also struggling to obtain personal protective equipment, which should be used by pharmacy staff, the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee said in a statement on 5 March 2020 .

“[Pharmacies] can’t get any masks from pharmacy suppliers for weeks [and] can’t get hand sanitiser for delivery drivers,” King said, adding that she had “highlighted the matter with [Public Health England’s] coronavirus helpline”.

“They were not aware of the situation and promised to ring back which never happened.”

However, other LPCs have reported little change in the number of drug shortages pharmacies are currently facing.

Nick Hunter, chief officer of Nottingham and Doncaster LPCs, said: “At the moment, I’ve got no one saying there are any more shortages than they are normally getting.

“But I think there probably will be at some point, just because any disruption to the system has the risk of creating shortages. It’s a complex system and pricing is complex, so it doesn’t take a lot to tip it.”

Citation: The Pharmaceutical Journal DOI: 10.1211/PJ.2020.20207798

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