A Reuters file image.

Punjab struggles with medicines shortage amid pandemic

Buzdar administration fails to control overpricing of drugs used to treat Covid-19

Yousaf Abbasi June 24, 2020
LAHORE: As Punjab struggles with a harrowing surge in Covid-19 cases, the most populous province in the country is also beginning to report shortages of medications.

With more than 66,000 positive cases across the province and more expected over the next few weeks, it appears that people are now rationing essential medicines.

According to details gathered by the Express Tribune, the most commonly reported shortages include antibiotics, antivirals, and even sedatives. In some areas, asthma inhaler medication has also disappeared from the shelves. A pharmacist linked the shortage to the surge in coronavirus cases. “Some antibiotics and antivirals are suddenly in high demand,” he said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. In addition to essential drugs, he said, supplies of an anti-malarial medicine used to treat the disease have also run dry due to the Covid-19 panic. Hydroxychloroquine (HCQ), a less toxic derivative of chloroquine, approved for treating auto-immune diseases has been short in the province for some time. The medicine, without proper research, was promoted by US President Donald Trump as a potential for the respiratory illness. Similarly, dexamethasone, a breakthrough drug, is running short, across the province. Dexamethasone, according to scientists in Britain, has helped severely ill coronavirus patients. Supplies of remdesivir, the only drug known to work against Covid-19, are also running low. While no vaccine is available for the treatment, the antiviral drug has apparently managed to shorten the time to recovery.

Pakistan and severe medicine shortages

The provincial health minister has vowed to make all drugs available at pharmacies during the health crisis. However, the situation on the ground suggests the provincial government has not been able to cope with the growing demand for medicines.

“I am unable to find common anti-biotics for cold,” said Jamshed, a resident of Cantt. “How do Covid-19 patients find the drugs they need?” he questioned. Depleting supplies of medicines have irked citizens. “In some areas, it is hard to find common cold medicine,” said Hafiz.

Supplies for another drug recently approved by the Punjab government seem to be running dry. A week after clinical trials of the anti-inflammatory drug tocilizumab began at hospitals, the anti-inflammatory drug, has disappeared from the market. Making the most of the situation, suppliers have started charging a premium for these drugs.

Hoarding leads to acute medicines shortage

At some locations, patients have paid up to Rs. 600,000 for an injection of tocilizumab, which has shown some degree of success against the Covid-19 virus. The approved retail price for the immunosuppressive drug, commonly used to treat rheumatoid arthritis, is not more than Rs. 60,000.

Irked caregivers believe the shortage of medicines has resulted in more misery for those suffering from Covid-19. “The government must make these drugs available for the treatment of Covid-19 patients. We can’t smuggle these drugs on our own,” said one caregiver, who was anxiously waiting for the hospital to arrange tocilizumab for his ailing father.

Published in The Express Tribune, June 24th, 2020.


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