Shortages in medicines have always been an issue. Prior to the pandemic, which sprung them into public consciousness, shortages were created by various manufacturing failures and supply chain issues.
In April 2020, the UK had over 200 medicines on its shortage list. This elevated level mirrored the global picture. These increased shortages stemmed from the medicines being used as pain relief and sedation treatment for Covid-19 patients, yet not all were in shortage for long. For example, paracetamol saw a swift resupply within weeks of running out in the UK.
Most medicines prescribed today, including those in short supply, are imported generic pharmaceuticals. Disruptions driven by Brexit and the pandemic have meant that, despite contingency stocks, there have been shortages of critical drugs, leading to second or even third-line choices being prescribed.
Joined by a group of academics, industrialists, and NHS staff, I sought out to think innovatively for a solution to this issue. The group’s proposition was a new approach to handling shortages. We proposed a new system for identifying critical treatment medicines, alongside a new way of holding safety stocks that went beyond simply storing packed stock ready for patients.
In April 2020, the UK had over 200 medicines on its shortage list.
The new thinking was to hold active pharmaceutical ingredients which could be formulated into the tablets and injectables we need. Adopting such a model would reaffirm some supply chain security.
Most active pharmaceutical ingredients are produced in India and China, enabling cheaper production than is possible in the UK. However, this sole dependence on international import links leaves us precariously open to disruption. The group’s new proposal addressed this but relied on having new technology which enabled the production of those generic medicines at comparable costs to Indian and Chinese imports.
For the last 100 years, pharmaceutical production has largely involved batch manufacturing, which means each individual stage is isolated and stored for testing before proceeding to the next step. This creates long cycle times, typically 18-24 months.
Continuous manufacturing provides an alternative option. Similar to modern car production lines, where ingredients can be added in a linear manner with the product isolated at the end. This requires smaller factories, and production times can be reduced from months to weeks.
In Scotland, the University of Strathclyde houses the Centre for Continuous Manufacturing and Advanced Crystallisation (CMAC) which is trying to bring this process to life. The collaboration between seven UK universities and eight major global pharmaceutical companies is working to develop continuous manufacturing, enabling faster, better quality medicine production with a lower carbon footprint. The industrialisation of this new technology is taking place at the Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre (MMIC) shortly to open at the Advanced Manufacturing Innovation District adjacent to Glasgow Airport.
For now, the group has turned its findings over to the UK Government, but as international disruptions show no signs of ceasing, the opportunities for resilient medicine supplies need serious consideration. Their adoption could not only secure our ability to supplement essential generic medicine shortages but also create jobs in a sustainable lower carbon process.
This article originally appeared in The Scotsman’s Inside Science column on Monday 13 September 2021.
Professor Clive Badman OBE is the Executive Director of Special Projects in Life Sciences at University of Strathclyde and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
The RSE’s Fellows’ Blog series offers personal views from our Fellows on a variety of issues. These views are not those of the RSE and are intended to offer different perspectives on a range of current issues.