Novartis sounds alarm over what a hard Brexit will do to pharma, patients

British flag being cut by scissors from the European union flag
Novartis has jumped into the Brexit debate with a plea that the U.K. make sure medicines will be able to get to patients. (Getty Image Plus)

As it looks more and more like England’s exit from the EU will turn into a train wreck, one of the world’s largest drugmakers pleaded with authorities to get their acts together so drug supplies do not get lost in the wreckage.

In a statement Friday, Novartis said that it is vital that the U.K. make it a top priority to minimize the disruption to the drug supply chain that will come from a “hard or disorderly Brexit.”  

“This includes clarity over customs arrangements, both to and from Europe, and to minimize disruption at our borders,” Novartis said.  

The statement came after Britain’s parliament voted down Prime Minister Theresa May’s plans for a transition. The Brexit deadline is March 29, and so far May has been unable to craft a compromise plan that all sides can agree on, meaning customs crossing could become chaos.

RELATED: As Brexit costs mount, Pfizer estimates $100M to adapt its supply chain

The drugmaker said it is building substantial supplies in the U.K. of the more than120 million packs of medicines it brings into the country from Europe annually. The National Health Service has ordered drugmakers to stockpile a six-week supply in the U.K. of those medications currently made in Europe but sold to the NHS.

But such contingency plans will be comprised if the NHS and the country’s pharmacists don’t heed the government’s advice not to hoard drugs to prepare for Brexit, a practice that will only lead to shortages in some areas, Novartis said.

Other drugmakers have said they are increasing inventories of drugs for the U.K. Sanofi has increased backlogs from the usual 10 weeks to 14 weeks. AstraZeneca has also said it is stockpiling drugs supplied by the U.K. and EU for each other. Merck & Co. is making its own plans, including reserving as much as six months’ worth of product in the face of a possible “temporary supply blackout.” 

Pfizer has estimated that these kinds of preparations, which include packaging changeovers and finding warehouse space, will cost it $100 million in additional expense. AstraZeneca put its number at $40 million.  

As a reminder of how large and important the drug industry is to Britain, Novartis pointed out that it is a $50 billion company that has 1,500 employees in across the U.K. and invested nearly £30 million in R&D in the U.K. alone. In November, Novartis moved its U.K. headquarters to London, setting up shop in the White City Place development next to Imperial College London’s new campus. Just this month, it announced a five-year collaboration with the University of Oxford’s Big Data Institute to learn to use big data to improve drug development and patient care.