Hospital chiefs to end reliance on single suppliers of drugs

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 11 March, 2009, 12:00am

The Hospital Authority will abolish its single-supplier arrangement for drugs used by a large volume of patients after the latest contamination scare exposed safety risks.

Purinol, a form of the generic drug allopurinol, has been linked to a rare fungal infection, mucormycosis, that has killed at least five patients at Queen Mary Hospital. The drugs were produced by local pharmaceutical company Europharm to treat chronic gout. The incident revealed that many generic drugs used by public hospitals are supplied by a single company.

A medical source familiar with the situation said the authority had decided to bring in multiple suppliers.

'The arrangement will be applied to drugs used by a big number of patients. The authority acknowledged that this can help to share risks in case one product goes wrong. This is the lesson to learn from this incident,' the medical source said.

Among the 3,000 drugs used in public hospitals, about 250 are supplied by Europharm and its four related companies.

The source said the authority had sometimes been forced to use one supplier because no other companies were qualified.

'The authority usually invites several companies in a tender, but not all companies can meet the requirement in terms of their quality control or production capacity.'

The authority is ready to activate a contingency response in case another popular drug by Europharm, a drug for diabetics called metformin that is used by 200,000 public patients, is also contaminated.

The authority dispenses 15 million metformin tablets a month.

A Hospital Authority source said: 'The patient volume using this drug is so big, if the tablets have any problem, it will be a disaster.'

The authority has decided not to conduct a replacement programme for metformin immediately.

Joseph Lee Kok-long, a member of the Hospital Authority's main tender board, said members had questioned the single-supplier arrangement. 'The authority has explained that if there is only one supplier that can meet all the tender requirements, it is understandable. But the authority should make sure there are alternatives to use in case a product goes wrong.'

Hard to swallow
Some 3,000 types of drugs are used in public hospitals
The amount, in HK dollars, the Hospital Authority will spend on drugs this financial year: $2.38b