Worst of medicine shortage is ‘over’, says Irish boss of EU agency

Emer Cooke says the situation was ‘unique’ and measures are being taken to avoid a repeat next winter

The worst of the medicine shortage crisis is over and measures are being taken to avoid a repeat next winter, the Irish woman heading up the European Medicines Agency has said.

Emer Cooke said the widespread shortage of common drugs such as antibiotics and cough mixture in recent months was the result of “exceptional” circumstances.

She said the agency is working with a range of pharmaceutical firms to ensure the sustainability of medicine supplies into next year. “A lot of those things are solvable, and hopefully will be solved for next year. A lot of work is going on behind the scenes.”

More than 220 medicines featured on a shortages list maintained by the Irish drugs regulator last month. They included treatments for pain, infections, anxiety, sleep disorders, seizures and eye problems.


Ms Cooke said the situation that arose, particularly in relation to shortages of antibiotics and children’s analgesics such as paracetamol and ibuprofen, was “unique”.

“It was an exceptional situation, going from a year when there was very little exposure to circulating bacteria and viruses to a year where we had three different respiratory viruses, and strep A as well.”

Demand for medicines has subsided as the winter flu wave has abated. In addition, she said, additional supplies have been sourced from new companies or diverted from other countries.

“I’d be confident saying the worst is over,” the Trinity College Dublin-trained pharmacist said in an interview with The Irish Times, though she declined to specify a date when all the shortages would end.

She acknowledged that “price may be a factor” in leading to product shortages, as suppliers move medicines toward higher-paying markets. “This is an opportunity now to look at all the factors that influence [availability], including price.”

On Friday, Ms Cooke will receive the European Movement Ireland’s European of the Year Award at a ceremony attended by Tánaiste Micheál Martin at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland.

The award, established in 1988, is in recognition of her role as executive director of the European Medicines Agency, being at the forefront of the European Union’s battle against Covid-19. But Ms Cooke said it is a recognition of the work of the entire agency, based in Amsterdam, especially during the rollout of vaccines.

“It has been an amazing experience, and really an amazing experience to see how Europe has worked together. I’m very proud to be part of that,” she said.

When Ms Cooke started working in the agency in 2002, its staff included about 10 Irish people out of 150. However, she said, “40 or 50″ Irish people would be among those invited to a staff function to mark St Patrick’s Day next month.

Ms Cooke said she was concerned at the low uptake of Covid-19 booster vaccines across the Continent, with the rate currently running at just 19 per cent. The available bivalent vaccines continue to show good effectiveness against the strains of Covid-19 circulating, she added.

While US regulators have noted a possible early “signal” in data linking Pfizer’s bivalent vaccine to stroke in older people, Ms Cook said the agency has looked carefully at its vaccine database and has not seen any similar trend.

“If something like this comes up as a signal, you want to make sure that you investigate it properly and figure out the facts around it. For me this shows the system is working.”

Asked whether social media companies are doing enough to stem the tide of false information about vaccines, she said: “There’s a fine balance between freedom of speech and communication of basically wrong information.

“I’m speaking personally here but you have to allow freedom of speech and you have to at least ensure that fact-based, science-based messages are there and appropriate and reaching the right people.”

She said agencies such as the one she heads are “very good at the science” but she asked “are we so good at the messaging to the individual who is confronted with a lot of different information and doesn’t know what is right or wrong?”

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen

Paul Cullen is Health Editor of The Irish Times