Pharmaceutical companies have slashed their prices to Eurozone countries by a total of around seven billion euros, but the resulting parallel trade means there are now serious shortages of medicines in countries such as Greece, a conference in London has heard.

In addition, some nations have utilised these discounts as reference pricing in order to cut their own spending, Briggs Morrison, executive vice president for global medicines development at AstraZeneca, told The Economist magazine's annual pharmaceutical summit last week. But such short-term budgetary decisions are not in the best interests of patients or of health care systems, he warned.

Austerity-hit nations, particularly Spain, Portugal, Italy, Greece and Ireland, have reduced their spending on health care and especially on medicines, but increasing their investment in medicines would be the better approach, said Mr Morrison. Innovative medicines change people's lives, keeping them healthy and out of acute care, and this is where the real savings can be made - decreasing hospitalisation rates will save four times as much as cutting the drugs bill, he pointed out.

John J Castellani, chief executive of the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA), also noted that many healthcare policy choices are currently being made through a “narrow fiscal lens.” However, he stressed, no nation, no matter how wealthy, can provide innovative health care for its citizens unless it values wellness, prevention and disease management at least as much as it values acute care. 

"Similarly, no nation can afford to ignore the looming costs of chronic diseases like diabetes, hypertension and Alzheimer's disease by disincentivising the innovative therapies that can help reduce those costs," he told the conference.

To spur continued needed investment, Mr Castellani called for: - a business environment that inspires and rewards smart risk-taking and investment, while recognising the industry's unique business model and timelines; - a vibrant, collaborative and modern scientific ecosystem that underpins great scientific and technological innovation; - a modern, transparent regulatory system that evolves with the science to get safe medicines to patients quickly; and - an environment where innovative medicines are properly valued.

Without these four interdependent pillars, "it is hard to see how we make future big advances on Alzheimer's, cancers, rare and chronic diseases. The cost of healthcare to patients and the economy will skyrocket. Worse, patients' choices will be limited to the status quo of ageing generic medicines," he said.

However, "if we read the signs properly, make good policy choices and take a long-term versus expedient view of our healthcare challenges and costs, we'll have a fighting chance to meet and overcome future and growing health care needs. In short, by paying now - and smartly - we may avoid having to pay later," Mr Castellani told the conference.

- Drug prices in Greece are now 20% below the levels of the next-cheapest country in Europe, and the government estimates that more than 25% of medicines arriving in the country are subsequently re-exported. As a result, up to 300 drugs are now in very short supply, and the government has published a list of 50 drugmakers which it says have stopped or are planning to stop supplying Greece, The Guardian newspaper has reported. The ban on exports first announced by the government in January now includes nearly 60 medicines, and officials are looking at adding 300 more, it adds.

 A new range of drug price cuts is set to come into force in Greece today (March 4).