Over the past number of weeks during the ongoing COVID-19 crisis, full-service healthcare distributors have proven time and time again their efficiency in ensuring the continuous supply of medicines.

Full-service healthcare distributors typically work out of sight, yet they are indispensable and crucial components of healthcare systems. Patients trust that their local pharmacy and other healthcare institutions will have the correct medicine in the exact quantity and at the precise time needed. They rely on full-service healthcare distributors to continuously provide a rapid, safe and manufacturer independent supply of products, including life-saving medicines, to the sites of healthcare provision.

This could not be truer under the current circumstances. More than ever, healthcare systems rely on full-service healthcare distributors, to ensure the safe and efficient delivery of medicines and medical devices to patients, not only for the treatment of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 outbreak has sent healthcare systems into a whirlwind of uncertainties and unprecedented difficulties. Healthcare professionals in primary and secondary care settings had to cope with the enormous surge in patients needing assistance and treatment to a disease still unpredictable in its development.

Healthcare professionals, together with pharmaceutical manufacturers and full-service healthcare distributors have been at the forefront of the fight against the disease. Full-service healthcare distributors responded efficiently and effectively to confront the challenges in the fight by relying on an established and proven distribution infrastructure and network.

Across Europe, the outbreak presented our sector with immense challenges due to the far-reaching effects of the virus, examples include:

– The application of border controls by EU Member States considerably impacted the transport of medicines from the manufacturing sites and storage hubs to the dispensing outlets. The creation of “green lanes” implemented at the urge of supply chain stakeholders proved very helpful.

– The imposition of quarantine measures by national authorities have rendered access to restricted/quarantined areas (“red zones”) very difficult, where patients needed their medicines most urgently. Since full-service healthcare distributors have been recognised as critical infrastructure, quarantined areas can be accessed without further delays.

– Full-service healthcare distributors are concerned about recently introduced export bans of certain Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients (APIs) by countries such as India. The impact of such measures could be felt widely in a few months’ time and increase the already existing problem of medicine shortages.

– Export restrictions imposed by EU Member States for medicines and medical devices lead to disruptions of supply chains in the EU, as no country is self-sufficient in terms of its medicine consumption. Thanks to the timely and clear guidance from the European Commission many restrictions have already been lifted.

– Full-service healthcare distributors need to maintain high staffing levels and services to be able to supply medicines to patients. While doing so, they take all measures to ensure the safety of their employees. However, warehouse workers and drivers of full-service healthcare distributors today remain without the promised Personal Protections Equipment (PPE) to adequately protect themselves and their colleagues. This continues to be a source of frustration for full-service healthcare distributors and raises the level of anxiety for workers.

In order to respond to aforementioned obstacles as well as to future threats from the COVID-19 crisis, full-service healthcare distributors have developed coordinated contingency plans to allow for the rapid deployment of measures at short notice. Overall, our sector has proven its resilience in keeping the value chain efficiently working – even under the most difficult circumstances.

GIRP, the European Healthcare Distribution Association, is actively engaging with European institutions and national governments to highlight the availability and willingness of the full-service healthcare distribution sector to support healthcare systems deal with the continuing challenges and future needs. Full-service healthcare distributors have well-established distribution infrastructure in every country in Europe that can ensure the appropriate and equitable distribution of products to all points of dispense. This includes the fair distribution of masks, gloves, antigen, antibody tests and, in the future, a life-saving vaccine.

As an association, GIRP has been working with partners such as the European Commission, European Medicines Agency, pharmacy and pharmaceutical manufacturing trade bodies to identify and mitigate possible impediments to the safe and secure distribution of increased volumes of medicines.

Examples of GIRP’s engagement include:

– Formal governmental recognition of the crucial role being played by full-service healthcare distributors in tackling the COVID-19 pandemic. The recognition by governments of full-service healthcare distributor staff as key workers, which allows warehouse workers and drivers to move around with a special permission to be able to deliver medicines to patients in need;

– Calling for greater access to PPE and eventually to COVID-19 antigen and antibody testing.

The priority of the GIRP remains the safe and secure distribution of medicines, which in itself is predicated on the safety of full-service healthcare distribution staff, such as gaining access to PPE.

About GIRP

GIRP, the European Healthcare Distribution Association, is the umbrella organisation for full-service healthcare distributors in Europe. It represents the national associations of over 750 pharmaceutical wholesalers serving 34 European countries, as well as major international and pan-European healthcare distribution companies. GIRP members employ over 140,000 people and distribute around 15 billion packs of medicines as well as a wide range of healthcare products per year. As the vital link in healthcare, they are committed to developing and providing innovative and efficient healthcare products and services to improve health and wellbeing of patients across Europe.

Director General of the European Healthcare Distribution Association