US & Canada

Obama orders action to address shortages of vital drugs

A tray of Magnesium Sulphate, a drug in short supply, on 29 August 2011
Image caption The FDA said three drug makers were involved with 40% of the shortages of essential medicines

US President Barack Obama has signed an executive order to address a growing US shortage of life-saving medicines.

The measure will require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to identify drug shortages earlier and speed up reviews for companies trying to raise production and increase supply.

More than 200 essential medicines are scarce this year, the FDA has said.

Patients have been forced to delay treatment and use more expensive or second-best alternatives as a result.

Doctors say the drugs in short supply range from some chemotherapy treatments to anaesthetics and antibiotics.

Fifteen deaths have been blamed on the shortages.

'Slow-rolling problems'

Healthcare providers have also complained that because of the scarcity of crucial medicines, distributors have been selling drugs in the "grey market" at 100-fold more than their usual retail prices.

"This is one of those slow-rolling problems that could end up resulting in disaster for patients and health care facilities all over the country," President Obama said.

This is the fifth action taken by the White House in the last week to push forward social and economic measures, and reflects legislation that has stalled in Congress.

"Congress has been trying since February to do something about this. It has not yet been able to get it done. It is the belief of this administration that... we can't wait," the president said at the signing ceremony for the order.

However it could take around 18 months for new production to reach the market, the FDA has said.

Erin Fox, pharmacist at the University of Utah says just a handful of companies are the main suppliers for many of the drugs in short supply.

A number of their manufacturing facilities were recently shut for safety upgrades. Shortages of some ingredients are also behind the bottleneck in supply.

But James Speyer, medical director of the clinical cancer centre at New York University's Langone Medical Center, says the president's action does not address one key part of the problem - drug profits.

Many of the scarce drugs are cheaper generics that yield low profits to their manufacturers.

The FDA says early notification helped them to avert 137 drug shortages in the last two years.

"We can make a really meaningful difference by expanding our net of early warnings," FDA commissioner Margaret Hamburg told reporters.

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