Strep A antibiotics prices, shortages hit drugstores amid UK outbreak

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Drugstores warn of major shortages of key antibiotics used to treat Strep A as UK cases rise

Marko Geber | Digital vision | Getty Images

LONDON – Britain’s drugstores are warning of shortages of key antibiotics used to treat Strep A as cases rise and child deaths reach 15.

An increase in group A strep, especially among schoolchildren, has led to increased demand for amoxicillin and penicillin, the main antibiotic treatments, over the past week.

Where stocks exist, drugstores say they’re flying “off the shelves,” and some say they’re now handing out drugs at a loss due to rising wholesale prices.

In some cases, pharmacists say that wholesale prices for the drugs have increased by as much as 850%. These higher costs should be covered by the UK National Health Service or drugstores, rather than parents, who usually get free prescriptions for kids.

At least 15 children have died from severe cases of Strep A this winter season in the UK, according to health authorities in England, Wales and Northern Ireland. Another death from a suspected infection was reported on Saturday, but has not yet been confirmed.

While most cases of Strep A are mild and often go unnoticed, it can also lead to more serious illnesses and complications, such as scarlet fever. The bacteria can also enter the bloodstream and cause a disease called invasive Group A Streptococcus (iGAS).

These serious infections can be deadly and are believed to be the cause of the recent spate of deaths. It has led to an increase in clinicians prescribing antibiotics to children.

The number of cases in Britain has increased this year, with the UK Health Security Agency reporting 6,602 cases of scarlet fever from September 12 to December 4, well above the 2,538 reported during the last peak in 2017-2018.

Fear of a national shortage

The government and wholesalers have insisted that the country is adequately equipped to deal with the outbreak. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak last week dismissed fears of a “national shortage” of antibiotics.

“There are currently no shortages of medicines available to treat this and there are well-established procedures to ensure it remains that way,” he told the House of Commons on Wednesday.

However, a letter to NHS England pharmacists, viewed by Sky News, acknowledged that local drugstores may be experiencing a “temporary interruption in the supply of some relevant antibiotics due to increased demand”.

Dr. Leyla Hannbeck, chief executive of the Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies (AIMP), which represents drugstore owners across the country, told CNBC that the reality on the ground was getting desperate.

This only shows the incompetence of those responsible. This isn’t the first time this has happened.

Dr. Leyla Hannbeck

CEO, Association of Independent Multiple Pharmacies

“Obviously there isn’t (enough supply) because it doesn’t find its way into pharmacies,” she said. “And where there are patchy supplies, they fly off the shelves.”

“This is very concerning to us, especially when we have parents who come to pharmacies and unfortunately don’t have stock,” she added.

Parents have been advised to call drugstores ahead of time to check prescription availability after Hannbeck noticed reports of families traveling miles between stores.

She said the government should not be surprised by the shortages, given similar drug shortages for other outbreaks, such as monkeypox, earlier this year.

“This only shows the incompetence of those responsible,” she said. “This is not the first time this has happened. Since the beginning of this year I have been talking to community pharmacies that something is going on with the British drug chains.”

The UK health department declined to comment on allegations of incompetence when CNBC reached out.

Drugstores foot the bill

Drug supply chains have been severely disrupted this year due to a combination of factors, including the Russian invasion of Ukraine, inflation, Covid-19 and Brexit.

It has led drugstores to spend more time – and money – buying drugs.

Under the UK’s National Health Service (NHS) drug tariff scheme, drugstores receive a flat fee for medication. There is also a concession list of drugs for which higher prices can be paid.

Despite this, when wholesale prices rise, drugstores may end up losing money.

The government’s Department of Health and Social Care has warned that while prices may fluctuate, “no company should use this as an opportunity to exploit the NHS”.

Streptococcus A – or Group A Strep (GAS) – is a bacterial infection of the throat or skin, which usually develops during the winter months.

Halfpoint Images | Even | Getty Images

However, over the past week, wholesale prices for amoxicillin and liquid penicillin solutions, which offer an alternative to children’s tablets and are particularly scarce, have risen from around £2 to between £15 and £19 in some places, according to AIMP’s Hannbeck.

London-based drug wholesaler Sigma Pharmaceuticals reportedly increased the price of its liquid amoxicillin solution by more than 10 times to £19 on Thursday, but later told CNBC the increase was due to an “IT glitch”.

Martin Sawer, executive director of the Healthcare Distribution Association, which represents drug wholesalers, said higher prices “are a direct reflection” of higher costs charged by manufacturers. He rejected claims of supply shortages, pointing instead to a “massive surge in demand”.

“Right now, there is too much demand for products and not enough competitive products are being made available to buy from manufacturers,” Sawer said.

If the government does not act quickly to protect pharmacies, patients can expect more and more problems receiving their medicines.

Janet Morrison

chief executive, pharmaceutical services negotiating committee

Drugstore owners are now calling on the government to adjust the favorable price for amoxicillin and penicillin to ensure they are fairly reimbursed even if prices continue to rise.

Janet Morrison, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee, which negotiates the list of concessions with the health department, said pricing help was “urgently” needed.

“Pharmacy teams are on the verge of breaking,” she said. “They are powerless in the face of the market forces working against them and urgently need the government’s guarantee that all medicines will be available, and not at exorbitant prices.”

A total of 158 medicines were on the NHS’s November concession list, compared to 135 in October. Morrison said she expects a “record number” of drugs to be added to the list in December as supply constraints exacerbate shortages and drive drug prices even higher.

“Pharmacies have been footing the bill for NHS medicines themselves for months when they should be covered by the government,” Morrison said.

“This cannot go on,” she added. “If the government doesn’t act quickly to protect pharmacies, patients can expect to see increasing problems receiving their medicines. The government and the NHS need to fix this, and quickly.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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