Industry as a Whole Must Take Steps to Increase Productivity

With the ongoing spread of the novel coronavirus and summer colds, the shortage of medicines is becoming a serious issue. Medicinal products are a lifeline that protect public health. The central government and the medical industry must develop a system to increase production.

Since May, when COVID-19 was downgraded to Category V under the Infectious Diseases Law, the number of infected people has continued to increase, and the nation is thought to be in the grip of a “ninth wave” of infections. Furthermore, the spread of herpangina — a key cause of summer colds, primarily among children — and an unseasonal influenza boom have occurred almost simultaneously.

These factors have increased demand for drugs such as antipyretics and cough medicines, resulting in a serious shortage of supply. Pharmacies sometimes run out of such drugs, forcing patients to wait for new stocks to arrive. Some hospitals are said to have compiled lists of short-supply medicines with the aim of restricting their use, among other measures.

In the medical field, acetaminophen, in particular, has been in short supply. The antipyretic has fewer side effects and is considered easier to use than other drugs.

It is hoped that hospitals and pharmacies will devise ways to ensure the preferential dispensation of acetaminophen for children and the elderly, while using alternative drugs with the same effects for others. Pharmacies operating in the same neighborhood also should cooperate and share resources to ensure the availability of drugs in short supply.

While demand for medicines continues to grow, there is a concomitant shortage of supplies. According to a survey conducted by an industry organization, about 3,900 items, or 20% of all prescription drugs, cannot be shipped in the required quantities.

Many of these in-demand drugs are generics. Since 2020, there has been a series of problems — including quality-control fraud — by manufacturers of generics. This has resulted in a spate of administrative disciplinary orders demanding businesses suspend operations.

Against this background, it is the responsibility of all pharmaceutical companies to make efforts to ensure stable supplies of medicines. It is hoped that not only generic drug makers but also the pharmaceutical industry as a whole will strive to increase production.

Generic drugs are made with the same active ingredients as brand-name drugs for which the patent has expired. Unburdened by development costs, generic drug manufacturers can thus offer lower prices. The government has been promoting generic drugs with the aim of curbing medical fees.

However, the generics industry includes many small and midsize companies with weak business foundations and low production capacities. Some generic drugs are so cheap that it is difficult for firms to turn a profit, dampening motivation to produce such medicines.

The government’s reduction of drug prices may be a factor. It is important for the government to take the initiative in establishing a system to ensure stable supplies rather than leaving the issue in the hands of companies.

It is crucial, too, to avoid the use of drugs as far as possible. Hopefully, individuals will heed infection-prevention measures and strive to avoid the spread of diseases. Members of the public must consider anew such basic measures as frequent handwashing, thorough ventilation of spaces, and the use of masks, where appropriate.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Aug. 4, 2023)