Unsung heroes of the pandemic kept drug supplies flowing

The generic medicine sector, which supplies around 80 per cent of all medicines to the NHS, was instrumental in supporting the nation’s hospitals as they battled the surge of coronavirus cases.

“The heroes of coronavirus have been the clinicians, care workers and support staff who have worked tirelessly, but I believe we have played a vital role in ensuring they have the tools to do their job,” says Dr James Burt, executive vice president, Europe, Middle East and North Africa, of Accord Healthcare, the UK’s largest supplier of generic medicines by volume to the NHS.

“I am proud of our industry and how hard everybody worked, and how dedicated they were under extremely difficult circumstances.”

Accord, which has invested more than £150 million in skilled staffing of production lines and equipping state-of-the-art facilities in the UK since 2017, stands at the fulcrum of clinical delivery with its role of manufacturing affordable drugs and connecting hospitals, pharmacists, wholesalers and other frontline healthcare providers.

In a world often fixated by high-profile, high-cost drugs, the average cost of a month’s supply from Accord is less than the price of a cup of coffee.

Around one in five generic prescriptions in the UK is filled with an Accord product and the company also has one of the most dynamic pipelines in the pharmaceutical industry with a portfolio of 200 molecules across therapeutic areas.

“Accord was established to provide improved access to high-quality, affordable medicine. It is in our DNA,” says Burt, who has helped drive the company’s market presence with a sustained growth, compound annualised, of more than 45 per cent in each of its first eight years. “We are constantly looking to innovate and provide added value to stimulate the next generation of healthcare.”

The task is immense. Accord has to source, manufacture, deliver and develop new medicines and devices against a landscape of growing demand, but constrained national finances. It also has to navigate the rapids of complex and often politically charged medicines pricing.

“Over the last decade, we’ve been investigating novel products across a spectrum of innovation from reformulating well-known agents and improving safety features to creating novel chemical entities,” says Burt.

“We have exciting new products coming through in oncology, treating autoimmune conditions and addressing central nervous system issues such as addiction. In everything we do, we are keen to look for ways to do it better and improve medicines that we provide, whether it be through finding a better way of administrating the medicine or a therapeutic use, which ultimately benefits patients.”

The role of the generic medicines sector can be under-appreciated, but its performance during the pandemic illustrates its importance and ability to respond to a series of challenges that threatened to derail healthcare provision.

Accord infographic

Accord started gearing up for the coronavirus onslaught when its European delivery hubs were challenged by the initial rise of COVID-19 cases in Italy during late-February. Its strong clinical team, led by former senior NHS figures, realised that a secure supply of a cocktail of drugs would be vital to treat patients needing mechanical ventilation.

“We started to create our own pandemic modelling in March to get a handle on the different medicines that would be needed, creating bespoke supply lines to ensure vital medicines were where they needed to be and matched the most urgent need,” says Burt.

“Working with Medicines for Europe and key players within the industry, we tasked consultancy firm A.T. Kearney to model volume outputs and identify potential stresses and strains across different countries, which was really effective.

“Getting that right meant hospitals did not run out of critical supplies during the first wave of the pandemic. The strain on hospitals and supply chains was incredible, but it was a very agile system and it almost certainly helped save lives as a result.”

Accord also moved swiftly to deal with a bottleneck emerging in intensive care units (ICUs), where nurses or pharmacists were reconstituting medicines from vials or ampules for the most severely ill patients.

“COVID-19 patients on mechanical ventilation needed huge doses of a cocktail of drugs to keep them in induced comas so they had six pumps going continuously and nurses spending large amounts of time making up syringes,” says Burt.

“Again, we had to be really agile here; we re-pivoted our production, in a very short period, to prioritise any of these agents that we could make which were a priority for ICUs and acting on the moral rather than commercial imperative.

“We were having to react on a day-to-day basis to massive demands for ICU medicines and it was a hard few months with people working round the clock. We had the logistics of lockdown to deal with, but managed record outputs thanks to the efforts of our people and new recruitment to cope with demand.

“Looking back, we achieved an amazing amount and should be proud of the performance of the generics industry and all its staff.”

This agile approach displays the type of innovation that is the essence of Accord. The company, part of the Intas Group, has grown its UK operation from less than 50 staff in 2010 to more than 1,200 across its sites at Barnstaple in Devon), Didcot in Oxfordshire and Fawdon in Tyne and Wear, an empty 22-acre site that has been regenerated over the last two years, as well as its headquarters and laboratories based at Harrow, Middlesex. It has established a strong base for export to Europe and continued to grow, employing an additional 600 staff across the region.

Accord’s core products of injectables and medicines are bolstered by its novel pipeline with several products in phase-III trials and its fast-paced growth puts it on target to reach the goal of becoming a top-five pan-European generics and biosimilars company by 2021.

We have a range of innovative products and have flexibility in our systems, so if there is another pandemic, there is added resilience in the UK medicines market

“We have quality systems and quality staff and there is huge potential to bring medicines to patients at affordable prices, but there is a critical need to recognise this is a business that invests and innovates and is not simply a vehicle for low costs,” says Burt. “The value of our innovation needs to be recognised and supported with fair reimbursement.

“We have a range of innovative products and have flexibility in our systems, so if there is another pandemic, there is added resilience in the UK medicines market.

“Accord has invested heavily in the UK and we believe our new products will make a significant difference to patients, many with unmet needs, and our continuing growth strengthens the ability of the NHS to treat people and meet future healthcare challenges.”

For more information please visit accord-healthcare.com