Some Russian hospitals are going through a scarcity of COVID-19 medication

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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19) Pandemic in Tver

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By Anton Zverev and Polina Nikolskaya

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Some Russian hospitals are suffering from serious shortages of drugs to treat COVID-19 and cannot be refilled due to panic buying, high demand and problems with a new labeling system, officials, traders and doctors said.

Russia, which has reported the fifth highest number of COVID-19 cases in the world, is – like many other countries – struggling to cope with a second wave of the disease and the health system outside Moscow is on the brink of rupture.

Doctors in over a dozen regions face major shortages of antibiotics, antiviral drugs, and other drugs to treat COVID-9, three local officials and three drug sellers told Reuters.

“Head doctors call me every few minutes asking for medication. They have nothing to treat patients. And I have nothing to deliver,” said the co-owner of a large pharmaceuticals retailer on condition of anonymity.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said last week that he is aware that there are problems. “We know there is a shortage in certain regions, it is unacceptable. The government is making very vigorous efforts to prevent this,” he said.

The Ministry of Health did not respond to a request for comment.

A doctor from the Bashkiria region in southern Russia said a hospital in her city was running out of antibiotics because of the large influx of patients. She refused to be identified.

With COVID-19 cases in Russia exceeding 2 million, social media feeds are full of requests for medication. [nL1N2I50GJ]

“We have no water for injections, let alone antibiotics and antivirals,” said an official from a Siberian city on condition of anonymity.

Russian doctors use a specific program of specific drugs to treat COVID-19 patients. It contains the antibiotics levofloxacin or azithromycinum and local antiviral drugs like umifenovir, Reuters documents show.

Those antibiotics and antiviral drugs are now running low, regional officials say.

“There is a huge shortage of COVID drugs,” said a senior regional official.

Only Moscow and a few other wealthy regions have the financial and lobbying resources to remove such bottlenecks.

“The only cure is through prayer,” said an official who works at a regional COVID-19 crisis center.

SYSTEM ERROR

Details of the drugs used in the treatment program were posted on social media, leading to panic buying that emptied pharmacies and suppliers’ warehouses.

Antibiotics should legally only be sold over the counter with a prescription, but many pharmacies sell them without one.

Drug makers can’t ramp up production right away, said Anatoly Tenser, head of development at Katren, a large distributor.

Drug manufacturers are also struggling to import substances they need from India and China due to high global demand during the pandemic, the co-owner of a large pharmaceuticals distributor said.

Alexander Semenov, president of drug maker Acticomp, said the company is grappling with a shortage of imported reaction intermediates that are used to make drugs.

“Of course there are bottlenecks. In the summer we made stocks six months in advance. Unfortunately, they run out very quickly,” he said.

Rustem Muratov, CEO of drug maker Binnopharm Group, said one of its factories increased production of levofloxacin by a factor of six and of azithromycinum by a factor of five in September.

“Manufacturers are not coping. There just aren’t that many of these drugs,” said a regional official at a COVID-19 crisis center.

A new drug labeling system launched in October to counter black market drugs by electronically monitoring the movement of each drug from manufacturer to consumer has not helped.

Due to teething problems, manufacturers have struggled to get drugs into the system and pharmacies have had problems selling, several distributors and manufacturers said.

A Reuters reporter was unable to buy drugs included in the treatment program at over a dozen pharmacies in Moscow and saw that the labeling system was not working properly when trying to buy other drugs.

One supplier said he has not been able to get a large shipment of dexamethasone to treat the new coronavirus for several weeks because the labeling system at the factory is struggling.

“It was crazy to introduce this system without testing and in a difficult epidemiological situation,” said Nikolai Bespalov, RNC Pharma Development Manager.

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