Coronavirus triggers sharp rise in price of pain relief medication

The cost of over-the-counter pain relief medication has jumped in the UK as drugmakers demand price increases on the back of raw material shortages triggered by the coronavirus outbreak.

High street retailers and pharmacies confirmed that the cost of sourcing paracetamol, ibuprofen and aspirin had all risen sharply in recent weeks, in some cases by as much as 30%, as drugs wholesalers sought to pass on higher costs.

Some independent pharmacies are struggling with the wholesale price rises – one reported having to push through several successive increases – while big chains have largely been able to use their financial firepower to absorb the costs.

Christian Jakobsson, the managing director of online pharmacy Medino, said its supplier was now charging 85p for 32 capsules of 500mg paracetamol, which was a third – or 21p – more than in February. “We have seen similar price increases for ibuprofen,” he added.

The World Health Organization is recommending that people take simple precautions to reduce exposure to and transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus, for which there is no specific cure or vaccine.

The UN agency advises people to:

  • Frequently wash their hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or warm water and soap
  • Cover their mouth and nose with a flexed elbow or tissue when sneezing or coughing
  • Avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or cough
  • Seek early medical help if they have a fever, cough and difficulty breathing, and share their travel history with healthcare providers
  • Avoid direct, unprotected contact with live animals and surfaces in contact with animals when visiting live markets in affected areas
  • Avoid eating raw or undercooked animal products and exercise care when handling raw meat, milk or animal organs to avoid cross-contamination with uncooked foods.

Despite a surge in sales of face masks in the aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, experts are divided over whether they can prevent transmission and infection. There is some evidence to suggest that masks can help prevent hand-to-mouth transmissions, given the large number of times people touch their faces. The consensus appears to be that wearing a mask can limit – but not eliminate – the risks, provided it is used correctly.

Justin McCurry

Boots said it was aware of some wholesale price increases, but said: “Customers can be reassured that the cost of their regular brands, including Boots own brand paracetamol, has not and will not go up. The same is true for our antibacterial products.”

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It is understood that Aspar Pharmaceuticals, a major supplier of pain relief medicines to chemists and supermarkets, including market leader Tesco, wrote to clients this week asking for a near 20% price increase on its aspirin and paracetamol. Another supplier, Bell’s Healthcare, is also understood to have asked for a similar price rise on ibuprofen.

In its letter to clients Aspar said it had been forced to put up prices as there was a shortage of raw materials from both China and India and this meant that the cost of new raw materials had gone up. Aspar declined to comment.

Last week India, which is world’s biggest supplier of generic drugs, limited the export of certain medicines, including paracetamol. The Chinese shutdown has fractured the industry’s supply chain as many of India’s drugmakers get their base ingredients there.

Some suppliers have placed limits on the volume of pain relief products they will provide to retailers and pharmacies, to ensure stock is distributed evenly around the country. In turn, many retailers are limiting the number of boxes of pain relief and children’s medication shoppers can purchase.

Boots said it had seen an increase in sales of hand sanitisers and cold, flu and pain relief medication. On Tuesday it imposed a limit of two items per customer on cough and cold medication, pain relief, children’s medicines, thermometers and tissues, in addition to baby sterilising and antibacterial products, hand sanitiser and hand wash.

“Given current demand, we are exploring new avenues of supply and alternative brands,” said a Boots spokeswoman. “We will endeavour to price appropriately, to reflect costs within our control.”

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Phoenix, the owner of the Rowlands pharmacy chain, said it had seen a considerable increase in demand for medicines such as paracetamol and Calpol. It said it had put order restrictions in place on some products to “ensure equitable supply across the UK”.

Phoenix confirmed that prices for some medicines had increased, but said: “This is beyond the control of medicine distributors like Phoenix.”

McKesson, the pharmaceuticals supplier that owns the Lloyds pharmacy chain, said it had processes in place with suppliers and manufacturers “designed to help minimise the impact of shortages and ensure we are able to provide a consistent supply of critical products.”

A spokesperson said: “We are experiencing an unprecedented demand for over-the-counter pain relief and are doing everything we can to ensure we provide a consistent supply of medicines. This includes sourcing from multiple providers and putting commitments in place with manufacturers to secure supply.”


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