(Adds AstraZeneca comment)
By Lefteris Karagiannopoulos
ATHENS, July 14 (Reuters) - Greece has decided to ban the export of 25 types of drugs, the Health Ministry said on Tuesday, following warnings of possible shortages that risked leading to a humanitarian crisis.
A ministry spokeswoman quoted the Greek drugs regulator as saying there had been a significant increase in some imported medicines being shipped back out of the country.
“Abuses by some players in the pharmaceuticals market have been discovered,” she told Reuters.
The regulator made the warning on re-exports during a meeting at the Health Ministry on Friday, when pharmacists complained they faced difficulties in securing some supplies.
The spokeswoman said the ministry would closely check exports and re-exports over the past 15 days and file complaints at home and abroad where there is evidence of abuse. She declined to say which drugs would be included in the ban.
However, the head of the drugs wholesalers’ association said the group had not yet been informed of the ban.
The ban was the latest move in a row over the availability of drugs in Greece, with pharmacists, drugmakers, wholesalers and public authorities trading blame while rights group warn of worsening public health conditions during the economic crisis.
Difficulties over drug supplies in Greece are compounded by capital controls which prevent companies from sending money abroad, imposed last month to prevent the banking system from collapse.
Re-exporting drugs across European borders, which allows traders to buy products in low-cost markets and sell them where prices are higher, is permitted under European Union free trade rules.
Drugmakers have nevertheless urged a curb on re-exports to prevent shortages in Greece but wholesalers trading medicines have denied the need for such emergency action.
The European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), which represents 40 drug companies, called on Tuesday for “exceptional measures” in “exceptional circumstances”.
“A proportionate, legislative ban on exporting medicines intended for Greek patients from Greece would be an appropriate and justifiable response to possible shortages and help to avert a potential humanitarian crisis,” it said in a statement.
But the head of the Hellenic Association of Medicine Wholesalers, Eirini Markaki, pointed the finger at international drugmakers and pharmacists. “Most of the international pharmaceutical companies have issued quotas on the amount of supplies Greek warehouses can order,” Markaki told Reuters.
“We have filed official complaints to the regulator so that measures are taken for this to stop,” she said, adding that the complaints targeted AstraZeneca, Novartis and Janssen, a unit of Johnson & Johnson. Novartis denied that it had limited its supplies to Greece, while Janssen was not immediately available for comment.
A spokesperson for AstraZeneca said the firm had met the regulator last week “to dispute the allegations made by the Hellenic Association of Pharmaceutical Warehouses”.
At that meeting, AstraZeneca said, it had “provided evidence to demonstrate that we continue to deliver in excess of the quantities of medicines currently required in the Greek market”.
Markaki denied any overall increase in re-exports by wholesalers. She said an isolated case of one warehouse exporting 700,000 units of drugs in two days at the end of June was under investigation, but all the warehouses combined had exported only 179,000 items so far in July.
Demand for drugs had increased because customers were trying to build up their supplies, fearing future shortages, she added.
The pharmaceuticals industry is owed more than 1.1 billion euros by Greek hospitals and the state-run health insurer in unpaid bills since December but it has promised to keep supply lines open on humanitarian grounds.
Separately, Greek pharmacists will go on strike on Wednesday to protest about plans in a deal struck between Athens and its international lenders on Monday to make changes to their trade. These include allowing people without a pharmacist’s degree to open a pharmacy. (Additional reporting by Kate Kelland in London; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by David Stamp)