Ottawa opens emergency drug stockpile to ease shortage

The federal government has offered to dip into its emergency supply of medications to help ease the ongoing drug shortage created by production problems at Sandoz Canada.
Pharmacist Denis Boissinot checks a bottle on a shelf at his pharmacy in Quebec City. Ottawa has offered to tap into its emergency stockpile of medicine amid a worsening drug shortage across Canada. (Jacques Boissinot/The Canadian Press)

The federal government has offered to dip into its emergency supply of medications to help ease the ongoing drug shortage created by production problems at Sandoz Canada.

The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has told provinces and territories it is willing to open up some of its holdings in the National Emergency Stockpile System to help alleviate demand for drugs that are in short supply.

"The National Emergency Stockpile System (NESS) maintains a limited supply of select drugs for surge capacity to supplement the extraordinary needs of provinces and territories in times of emergency," Health Canada spokesman Stephane Shank said Sunday by email.

These include morphine, anesthetic drugs and antibiotics. Generic drug maker Sandoz supplies the majority of injectable medications in Canada — among them painkillers, anti-nausea drugs and antibiotics — and is the sole supplier of many of these agents.

No jurisdictions have taken stockpile offer yet

NESS could provide, for example, such necessary medications as morphine and anesthetics for 500 Canadians on ventilators for a period of one week, Shank said in an interview from Ottawa.

"PHAC and the provinces and territories have agreed upon a process and criteria by which they may be able to access these drugs should the provinces and territories again find themselves facing shortages as a result of production problems at Sandoz," he said.

So far, no jurisdictions have taken the federal agency up on the offer, which was made about 10 days ago.

The number of drugs kept in the emergency stockpile and where they are kept is confidential, he said.

NESS was set up to allow a quick response to emergencies that pose a threat to the health of Canadians — such as terrorist attacks, natural disasters and disease pandemics.

The emergency stockpile contains a variety of medical supplies and equipment, from beds and blankets to ventilators and pharmaceuticals. The program provided millions of doses of antiviral drugs for jurisdictions across the country during the 2009 H1N1 influenza pandemic.

Releasing key medications from the national cache to help combat the drug shortage won't compromise emergency preparedness, Shank said.

Sandoz cut production, worsening drug shortage

The federal agency decided to crack open its emergency supply "to be proactive" in trying to help provinces and territories deal with the worsening drug shortage, which became more critical last month when Sandoz cut production of many of its products.

"Our government is committed to helping provinces and territories as they deal with issues caused by this sole supplier … whether it's speeding up reviews of replacement drugs, making sure safe drugs are allowed into the country or providing access to the NESS," Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said in an email.

Sandoz suspended or slowed production of many of its drugs in order to upgrade its plant in Boucherville, Que., in response to concerns raised by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration about manufacturing standards. A fire in the plant on March 4 further set back production, worsening the shortfall in drug supplies across the country.

The company's woes were exacerbated Friday when it had to recall 57,000 vials of injectable morphine from health facilities across Canada due to a packaging mix-up at its plant. A Toronto hospital had discovered a 10-vial box of the painkiller contained four vials of a powerful heart drug … a medication that could be fatal if given to certain patients.

On Monday, the company announced it is starting to ship boxes of injectable morphine that passed re-inspections over the weekend.