Of Serious Concern?

Published on: 
Pharmaceutical Technology, Pharmaceutical Technology-02-02-2020, Volume 44, Issue 2
Pages: 5

Amid the rapidly rising cases of a novel coronavirus, concerns are being raised over preparedness and potential disruptions to the pharma supply chain.

Editor’s Note: This article was published in Pharmaceutical Technology Europe’s February 2020 print issue.

As the rate of infection of a novel coronavirus, first identified in Wuhan, China, rises rapidly and more countries report confirmed cases, pharma companies are rallying to find effective treatments to combat the virus. However, concerns regarding the global supply chain are also being raised, as a vast proportion of APIs are sourced from suppliers located in China, a country currently going into lockdown.

A global health concern

The new coronavirus, 2019-nCoV, is believed to have originated from animals, and symptoms include respiratory issues and fever. As a result of the 2019-nCoV being viral in nature, antibiotics are of no use, and human-to-human transmission is occurring, which can aid the spread of the virus on a global scale.

“Stopping the spread of this virus both in China and globally is [the World Health Organization’s] WHO’s highest priority,” said Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, director‑general of WHO in a press release (1). “WHO is working closely with the [Chinese] government on measures to understand the virus and limit transmission.”

Vaccine development programmes underway

The Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI) revealed in a press release that it has initiated funding of three programmes aimed at the development of vaccines against 2019-nCoV (2). Building on existing partnerships with Inovio and the University of Queensland (Brisbane, Australia), in addition to a new partnership with Moderna and the United States National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, CEPI hopes to leverage rapid response platforms that are already being worked on to advance candidates into the clinical setting as quickly as possible. Additionally, several US drug makers (including AbbVie and Johnson & Johnson) have been sending drugs that are approved to be used in the treatment of HIV to be used off-label in efforts to treat those infected, as reported by The Wall Street Journal (3).


However, in an interview with CNBC, Vas Narasimhan, CEO of Novartis, projected that it will take more than a year to find a new vaccine for 2019-nCoV (4). “The reality is that it will take over a year, in my expectation, to really find a new vaccine for [2019-nCoV], so we really need to use epidemiological controls to really get this situation in a better place,” he said in the interview.

Supply chain at risk?

Despite the lengthy time projected by Narasimhan for a new vaccine to be found for 2019-nCoV, he also stressed that, for Novartis at least, he does not expect any disruptions in the supply chain and for the company to continue to be able to deliver medicines in the coming months (4). However, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), China accounts for 40% of the global production of APIs (5), and so, as more restrictions are made on transportation of materials in and out of the country, supply disruptions may become apparent later down the line.

The recent 2019-nCoV infection is not the only issue that has sparked concern around the monopoly China seems to have on the pharmaceutical ingredients market. Apprehension on the stability of the pharma supply chain has been further exacerbated by the nitrosamine impurities issues found in sartans, that are still being investigated by regulatory bodies, and substandard vaccine doses that had been sold in China in 2018 (6).

If the SARS outbreak, which occurred in 2002 to 2003, is anything to go by, then it is probable that global markets will be affected. Ultimately, as was the case nearly 20 years ago, it will be the speed at which the rate of this novel coronavirus infection can be contained that will have an impact on the recovery of the markets and supply chains.


1. WHO, “WHO, China Leaders Discuss Next Steps in Battle Against Coronavirus Outbreak,” who.int, Press Release, 28 Jan. 2020.
2. CEPI, “CEPI to Fund Three Programmes to Develop Vaccines Against the Novel Coronavirus, nCoV-2019,” cepi.net, Press Release, 23 Jan. 2020.
3. J.S. Hopkins, “US Drugmakers Ship Therapies to China, Seeking to Treat Coronavirus,” wsj.com, 27 Jan. 2020.
4. CNBC, “Novartis CEO: It Will Take Over a Year to Find Vaccine for Coronavirus,” cnbc.com, 29 Jan. 2020.
5. MHRA, MHRA 2017-OB-05, “International Strategy,” gov.uk, 24 April 2017.
6. E. Wilkinson, “India and China Spark Concerns for UK Drug Supplies,” The Pharmaceutical Journal, 28 Aug. 2019. 

Article Details

Pharmaceutical Technology Europe
Vol. 32, No. 2
February 2020
Page: 5


When referring to this article, please cite it as F. Thomas, “Of Serious Concern?” Pharmaceutical Technology Europe 32 (2) 2020.