Ian Ellul

The past few weeks have been characterized by numerous events. We are all too familiar with the global recession. And pharmacies seem to be unvaccinated for this. A recent French economic assessment showed that 37% of French pharmacies are experiencing a negative balance sheet, and Alliance Boots’ pharmaceuticals have even embarked on a 10% reduction in headcount across Europe to reduce operating costs. On the other hand, last month, Sweden’s largest state-owned pharmacy chain, Apoteket, has announced that it will start selling 616 of its 946 branches.

Still, diversification still seems to be the key to challenge the recession, with GlaxoSmithKline announcing that it will acquire the dermatology-focused pharmaceutical company Stiefel Laboratories for $3.6 billion, whilst Johnson & Johnson has announced its intention to buy oncology specialist Cougar Biotechnology for $1 billion to boost its pipeline of late-stage cancer therapeutics. Such ventures may nevertheless not be of benefit to all stakeholders. In fact, following Pfizer’s announcement of its merger with Wyeth earlier this year, the companies revealed that it will reduce around 8% of its global research workforce as part of its cost-cutting plans.

To add to this, we are also eyeing a lurking swine flu pandemic. In April the WHO has raised the level of influenza pandemic alert to phase 5, a step away from a global pandemic. The European Medicines Agency has in fact held a ‘vaccine strategy’ meeting with European Vaccine Manufacturers (EVM) group, including GlaxoSmithKline, Wyeth Vaccines, Baxter, Sanofi-Pasteur, Sanofi-Pasteur MSD, and Solvay Biologicals. Obviously this pending pandemic has affected stakeholders across the board – the Drug Information Association has even postponed its Latin American Regulatory Conference, which was due to take place in Mexico last month. New challenges are also presenting themselves to regulators – the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain has warned of Tamiflu (oseltamivir) and Relenza (zanamivir) counterfeits which could seriously undermine governments’s efforts to harness the virus.

On a more positive note, in the light of the prolonged recession, Pfizer has embarked on a programme to provide more than 70 primary-care medicines, including Viagra (sildenafil), free to Americans. To be eligible, patients must apply by the end of this year, have lost their job since last January, have been taking a Pfizer medicine for at least 3 months, have no health insurance, and be able to attest to financial hardship. One hopes to see similar social responsibility campaigns in the near future.

Other important events in May included the re-opening of two production lines at a Menarini plant in L’Aquila, Italy, after the devastating earthquake in the preceeding month which forced a shutdown of the facility, and the publication in The Lancet, whereby a study suggested that taking a single capsule (Polycap) containing five drugs: simvastatin, thiazide, atenolol, ramipril and aspirin, could significantly cut the risk of heart disease in healthy subjects.

Nearer to us, a €3 million pharmaceutical factory belonging to India’s Aurobindo Pharma Group was opened in May by Finance Minister Tonio Fenech in Hal Far. The aim is to develop a packaging, warehousing and manufacturing hub in Malta. In fact, pharmaceuticals is one of four key areas which Malta Enterprise sees as the most promising for new investment in Malta, according to the finance minister. Considering that we are in a full-blown recession, well … such achievements speak for themselves …