It all started with a simple warning, delivered via text messages to friends and family and via social media, to stock up on essential pharmaceuticals in Russia before supplies were disrupted by severe Western sanctions imposed in response to the invasion of Ukraine.
Then, in Moscow and other places, some medications became more difficult to get by.
In late March, a Kazan resident informed The Associated Press that a blood thinner her father requires was no longer available in any of the city’s pharmacies.
Experts and Russian health officials claim the drug shortages are only transitory, owing to panic purchasing and logistical challenges for suppliers as a result of the sanctions, but some are concerned that high-quality medicines will continue to vanish from the Russian market.
“There will very certainly be shortages.” Dr. Alexey Erlikh, head of the cardiac critical care unit at Moscow Hospital No. 29 and a professor at Moscow’s Pirogov Medical University, stated, “I don’t know how disastrous it will be.”
Russians began reporting that they couldn’t locate some prescriptions in pharmacies in early March, just after Moscow launched a war on Ukraine, and sweeping sanctions further isolated Russia from the rest of the world.
In the second week of March, Patient’s Monitor, a patients’ rights organization in the Russian Caspian Sea province of Dagestan, began receiving complaints.
The group’s leader, Ziyautdin Uvaysov, told the Associated Press that he personally verified the availability of 10 most-wanted pharmaceuticals at multiple state-run pharmacies in the region, and “they didn’t have a big amount of these.”
When Uvaysov inquired about when supplies would be replenished, the pharmacy said, “There aren’t any and it’s uncertain when there will be.”
Despite assurances from officials that the rapidly emptying shelves were due to supply hoarding, claims of shortages remained into March.
In mid-March, Vrachi.Rf, one of Russia’s largest online communities for medical workers, polled over 3,000 doctors, who reported shortages of more than 80 medications, including anti-inflammatory, gastrointestinal, antiepileptic, and anticonvulsant drugs, as well as antidepressants and antipsychotics.
In late March, a dozen people reached by the Associated Press in various locations said they had spent days looking for certain thyroid meds, insulin kinds, and even a popular pain-relieving syrup for children. Some said they couldn’t find them at all.
“Some of the blood pressure drugs that I give to my patients have gone missing,” Erlikh stated. “And other doctors I know are having issues with highly expensive, very necessary drugs (used in) specific surgical operations.”
Russian Health Minister Mikhail Murashko has consistently said that medicine supply in the nation is not an issue, blaming any shortages on panic buying. He claims that demand for some pharmaceuticals has increased tenfold in recent weeks, and he warns Russians against stockpiling the drugs.
Experts believe that panic purchasing has contributed to the emergence of medicine shortages.
“People hurried to stock up, and supplies that were expected to last a year or a year and a half were sold out in less than a month,” Nikolay Bespalov, development director of RNC Pharma, told news agencies.
Bespalov also mentioned logistical issues that arose early on in the crisis. While major Western pharmaceutical corporations agreed not to pull life-saving drugs from the Russian market, sanctions cut Russia’s main banks off from the SWIFT financial messaging system, making international transfers more difficult. Hundreds of nations have suspended aviation trade with Russia, causing supply lines to be disrupted.
The logistical challenges, according to the expert, have been mostly overcome, but panic purchasing, fueled by worries that foreign corporations may stop supplying, may continue to fuel shortages for some time.
“Clearly, it will continue until the emotions cool down,” Bespalov added.
In the closing days of March, local news sites from Vladimir, just east of Moscow, to the Kemerovo area in Siberia reported shortages of different prescriptions despite continuous panic-buying.
“The situation on the medicine market is gradually returning to normal, panic-buying of pharmaceuticals is reducing,” Russia’s health-care agency Roszdravnadzor said in a statement Friday.
The cardiologist, Erlikh, alluded to already-existing issues with pharmaceutical quality in Russia, which imports up to 40% of its drugs, according to some estimates.
Shortages of some imported pharmaceuticals became a concern after authorities implemented an import substitution program to offset sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea and to push its own treatments over foreign-made ones.
The program gave Russian enterprises a wide variety of advantages, eventually making it unprofitable for international pharmaceutical corporations to deliver some of their high-priced, high-quality products to Russia.
State procurement of medications for hospitals and state-funded clinics, which account for up to 80% of Russia’s pharmaceutical industry, was subjected to the “three’s a crowd” regulation in 2015, which barred foreign firms from vying for contracts unless at least two Russian companies were bidding.
The government also continued to add pharmaceuticals to the “critical medicines” list, which is a database of over 800 essential drugs for which the government has set mandatory — and relatively modest — pricing. Companies can request a change in the established pricing once a year, but the procedure is lengthy, bureaucratic, and does not guarantee a favorable outcome.
“We’ve been losing one essential original drug after another for quite some time now. Generics are taking their place, and although some are created in Europe, others are made in Russia,” Erlikh remarked.
“Of course, when an original drug is unavailable, a generic is preferable to nothing. But it’s a case of (deliberately) lowering the bar, which isn’t a healthy way to live,” he continued.