News in brief from around the world… The past week saw President Trump give final clearance to new regulations aimed at curbing the opioid crisis, as well as announcing plans to lower drug prices. In the UK, meanwhile, reports emerged of government proposals to charter ships to deliver drugs in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

⇒ On 24 October, President Trump signed the SUPPORT for Patients and Communities Act into law; a package of reforms that aim to provide more medical assistance to those affected by the opioid crisis, as well as granting more power to regulators such as the Food and Drugs Administration (FDA) and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS).

These powers include requiring manufacturers to produce “blister packs” to limit the number of drugs prescribed to patients and to provide patients with simple and safe ways to dispose of leftover drugs. The SUPPORT Act will also facilitate data sharing between health regulators in the US while making the mailing of illicit drugs more difficult.

The bill passed through both houses in September with resounding support, receiving a vote of 98-1 in the Senate after a vote of 353-52 in the House of Representatives.

This follows months of discussion about a wider bipartisan package to combat the crisis, which led to approximately 72,000 overdose deaths in 2017.

⇒ Trump has also proposed a plan to lower “unfair” prescription drug prices in the past week.

In a speech at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), he suggested that his International Pricing Index (IPI) would help to bring down drug prices and prevent “foreign freeriding.”

“When foreign governments extort unreasonably low prices from US drug makers, Americans have to pay more to subsidise the enormous cost of research and development,” he said. “It’s unfair and it’s ridiculous, and it’s not going to happen any longer.”

According to the HHS, the Medicare federal health insurance scheme pays 180% of what other wealthy countries pay for “the most costly physician-administered drugs,” which allows other countries to “reap the benefits of American pharmaceutical investment and innovation,” costing American patients and taxpayers.

The new IPI system would supposedly have Medicare set payments for drugs at a “target price”, based on the discounts drug companies give other countries.

Total payment for these drugs would drop by 30%, with alleged total savings estimated to be US$20.6 billion for US taxpayers and patients.  

The new model would be phased in over five years, beginning in half of the country and scaling up over time, the HHS says.

⇒ The UK may have to charter ships to deliver food and drugs to the country in the event of a “no-deal” Brexit, the cabinet has been told.

Chris Grayling, the Secretary of State for Transport, reportedly stated that chartering ships, or space in ships, could help the UK bring in “critical supplies” via less congested sea routes.

This is because the usual route between Dover and Calais may become blocked due to EU custom checks at the French border.

The Financial Times reports one government official as saying, “whatever we do at our end, the French could cause chaos if they carry out checks at their end.”

“The idea of the government running ferry services is slightly farcical,” another allegedly said.

On the French side, Jean-Paul Mulot, a representative of Hauts-de-France, France’s northernmost region, tweeted saying the French government “has got no plans to close down Calais,” adding that Brexit “won’t trigger any suicidal economic mission” by French ports.

⇒ Interpol has reported that it has seized 500 tonnes of illegal online pharmaceuticals across 116 countries.

As part of its “Operation Pangea XI”, the international police organisation reports having made 859 arrests worldwide and having seized pharmaceutical products like fake cancer medication, counterfeit pain pills and illicit medical syringes, worth a total of US$14 million.

More than 110,000 medical devices were confiscated, including syringes and hearing aids, and the operation also saw the closure of 3,671 web pages.

According to Interpol, the number of medicines seized this year was lower than in previous years.

“The actions of the police, customs and health regulatory agencies working together have forced the criminals operating illicit online pharmacies to change their modus operandi,” said Interpol Secretary General Jürgen Stock. “Criminals are now shipping packages containing smaller numbers of pills and tablets to try and avoid the more stringent checks which have become routine in many countries as a result of the Pangea operations.”

“However, this year’s results again show the successes achieved globally in stopping potentially lethal products from reaching unsuspecting customers,” he added.

Interpol also claims that the operation has been able to warn the public of the dangers of buying pharmaceutical products online, through videos, brochures and talks.

Alastair Jeffrey, head of enforcement at the UK’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency, which took part in the operation, said in a statement, “our intelligence-led enforcement operations have seized millions of counterfeit and unlicensed medicines and devices in the UK.”

“This is just the tip of the iceberg, and we will continue to take action against known criminals – working with our international partners to stop illegal medicines from entering the UK.”