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Travel restrictions to EU put critical medical supplies at risk: industry

Border closures within the EU introduced by member states to stem the spread of COVID-19 and EU-wide restrictions on travel into the bloc imperil medical supplies, say operators in the medical industry.

A ‘green lanes’ policy introduced this week by the European Commission to allow for goods to continue to flow seamlessly within the single market is only gradually being rolled out. Guidelines issued by the EU executive earlier this week were only endorsed on Wednesday by member states.

It will take time to see these rolled out. EU capitals cannot be forced to open their borders against their will, given obvious public health reasons. If some member states prove to be hard-line, the Commission can only prosecute them if their measures are deemed disproportionate. But initiating procedures against capitals in such a way takes time.

A new ‘EU Executive Steering Group on shortages of medicines caused by major events’ coordinated by the European Commission met for the first time on Wednesday too. Its aim is to address potential supply problems for medical products.

“We would like to highlight the challenge regarding restrictions on the movement of truck drivers from Italy (requirement to quarantine) which slows down the shipment of goods out of the country and notably Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients to our medicine factories,” writes Medicines for Europe’s director-general Adrian van den Hoven. The group represents generic, biosimilar and value-added medicines producers.

EFPIA, the leading pharmaceutical industry association in Brussels, echoes those views. In a note released on Wednesday, the association said it wants “transport workers, to circulate across borders as needed”.

“As the outbreak spreads, more truck drivers of different nationalities could be subject to quarantine measures such as Spanish drivers – which will mean that eventually we could run out of drivers allowed to cross borders,” warned Medicines for Europe.

On Wednesday (18 March 2020) member states agreed to look into lifting work and travel restrictions for professionals working in the transport sector.

But Medicines for Europe want more: “Technicians needed to repair machinery in our [400] factories should receive a dispensation to cross internal EU borders. As our factories are running at full capacity, the maintenance of critical production equipment becomes ever more critical.”

“There are some restrictions on the movement of cross border workers – Slovakia to Hungary – which is affecting our production,” reports Medicines for Europe.

New choke points with air freight and road border restrictions with non-EU countries

While the situation within the EU is being handled by the European Commission as it attempts to keep borders sufficiently open to secure critical supplies, some restrictions on trade of critical medical equipment are of the executive body’s own making. This is the case of a travel ban – for ‘non essential’ travel – to the EU introduced this week.

“There is a growing challenge with air freight into the EU which is important for the supply of materials for our production,” explains Medicines for Europe.

EFPIA calls for the “preservation of the free circulation of all goods. In particular, guaranteeing the supply chain of essential products such as medicines, medical equipment, essential and perishable food products and livestock”.

“We request green lanes at external border points [with direct EU neighbours, Russia, Eurasian Union] to fast track movement of critical products like medicines and healthcare related products,” writes Medicines for Europe.

“There must be coordination with the major pharmaceutical volume producing regions”. The paper cites China for chemicals, India, the UK, Switzerland, the US, Canada, Ukraine and Turkey for medicines and other manufactured products”.


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