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UK fears crisis as 11.5 million get potentially #AddictiveDrugs

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More and more Britons are being prescribed potentially addictive medicines like sleeping pills, opioids and other painkillers, raising the risk of a drug crisis like the one in the United States, health officials said on Tuesday (10 September), writes Kate Kelland of Reuters.

In a government-commissioned report, researchers at Public Health England (PHE) said evidence showed that “since at least 10 years ago more people are being prescribed more of these medicines and often for longer”.

In 2017 to 2018 alone, 11.5 million adults in England - more than a quarter of the adult population - was prescribed one or more of the medicines under review, the PHE analysis found.

The medicines included anti-anxiety drugs called benzodiazepines and sleeping pills known as z-drugs, as well as the epilepsy and anxiety medicines gabapentin and pregabalin, antidepressants, and opioid pain medicines.

Many of these can be addictive and could cause problems for people taking them or coming off them, PHE said. The report also found higher rates of prescribing to women and older people.

While prescribing of some drugs, like benzodiazepines and opioids, has dipped a little recently amid fears about the deadly opioid epidemic in the United States, others, such as the gabapentin, pregabalin, and some antidepressants, are being prescribed more often and for longer.

“This means more people are at risk of becoming addicted to them or having problems when they stop using them,” PHE said.

“It also costs the NHS (National Health Service) a lot of money, some of which is wasted because the medicines do not work for everyone all the time, especially if they are used for too long.”

An opioid epidemic in the United States has killed almost half a million Americans since 1999, and a report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) policy forum earlier this year warned that the United States “is by no means alone in facing this crisis.”

The Paris-based OECD said deaths linked to opioid use were rising sharply in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and England and Wales.

Responding to the PHE report, Britain’s Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency said it is watching the US crisis closely and aiming to take avoiding action.

“We take the experience in the U.S. of dependence and addiction to opioids very seriously and are following developments to learn from the actions other countries are taking to tackle this issue,” it said in a statement.

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European Commission secures EU access to #Remdesivir for treatment of #COVID-19

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On 28 July, the European Commission signed a contract with the pharmaceutical company Gilead to secure treatment doses of Veklury, the brand name for Remdesivir. As from early August onwards, and in order to meet immediate needs, batches of Veklury will be made available to member states and the UK, with the coordination and support of the Commission. The Commission's Emergency Support Instrument will finance the contract, worth a total of €63 million.

This will ensure the treatment of approximately 30,000 patients presenting severe COVID-19 symptoms. This will help to cover the current needs over the next few months, while ensuring a fair distribution at EU level, based on an allocation key, taking into account the advice from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The Commission is now also preparing a joint procurement for further supplies of the medicine, expected to cover additional needs and supplies as from October onwards. Health and Food Safety Commissioner Stella Kyriakides said: “In recent weeks, the Commission has been working tirelessly with Gilead to reach an agreement to ensure that stocks of the first treatment authorised against COVID-19 are delivered to the EU. A contract has been signed yesterday, less than a month after the authorization of Remdesivir, which will allow the delivery of treatments from early August for thousands of patients. The Commission is leaving no stone unturned in its efforts to secure access to safe and efficient treatments, and is supporting the development of vaccines against coronavirus. Yesterday's agreement is another important step forward in our fight to overcome this disease.”

A press release is available online.

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European startups benefit from post-#Covid boost

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As a global recession looms, many businesses find themselves facing an existential crisis. The coronavirus pandemic has signalled an end to a period of untrammelled economic expansion, triggering a sharp rise in unemployment and forcing governments across Europe to introduce sweeping business bail-outs in a bid to stem the tide of insolvency.

Hard times lie ahead—and yet, it’s not all doom and gloom. With European policymakers’ attention firmly focused on getting the bloc’s economy back on track via a recovery plan designed to accelerate digital and green transitions, the crisis could, in fact, herald the beginning of a golden age of opportunity for Europe’s startups.

Pushing forward

The US and Asia enjoyed a significant head start in the startup boom. However, Europe has been steadily catching up—and is predicted to snap back with greater resilience from the pandemic. Not only did Europe bring the pandemic under control far faster than the US, but Europe’s existing social welfare system, together with its governments’ collective approach to preserving jobs during lockdown, rather than allowing unemployment to soar, are paying dividends.

While returning to ‘business as usual’ will be tough, evidence from the last global financial crash proves that crises drive innovation. Figures show that after 2008, more investors took chances on seed-stage funding rounds, for example, a trend that may be repeated as newly unemployed entrepreneurs create startups – both as a way of beating unemployment and solving pressing social problems.

A skilled workforce awaits these newly formed businesses: European startups can expect to attract talent either laid off in the US or barred from the country after Donald Trump’s crackdown on visa rules. Companies who are ready to hire could quickly see their stock rise, thanks to this unprecedented talent pool.

Tech startups in the ascendant

Some European startups are especially poised to grow in the wake of the crisis. Take France-based social media platform Yubo, whose founders featured on this year’s Forbes 30 under 30 list. The company’s goal—of fostering long-distance friendships between young people aged 13-25 through live video streaming and instant messaging—seemed particularly prescient during the pandemic. For young people who have suddenly been forced to drop the in-person socialization with their peers that research has shown is essential to their development, the app has proved a vital resource.

As the lockdowns necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19 shuttered schools, cinemas and concert venues, Gen Zers turned to their smartphones both for social sustenance and to discuss the pressing political issues of the day, with sites like Yubo or Houseparty offering a safe and flexible platform for socializing and debate in a group setting. Yubo’s daily sign-up figures speak for themselves, having more than doubled in number from the beginning of 2020 to reach 30,000 by the middle of April. With uncertainty lingering over when schools in the US, UK and Canada— the countries which make up the lion’s share of Yubo’s userbase—will reopen in full, the popularity of livestreaming apps is likely to grow still further.

Healthtech at the forefront of research

Meanwhile, European healthtech startups – which already had an advantage thanks to the continent’s strong public health systems – are sure to see renewed investment amidst the public health crisis.

London-based Benevolent AI, for example, uses artificial intelligence to identify promising new drug targets and has already identified some potential treatments for Covid-19 which are now being investigated further. Using tech designed to sift through reams of scientific literature referencing the virus, the researchers were able to speedily pinpoint a potential treatment: baricitinib. Originally developed as a way of suppressing the extreme immune-response triggered by conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis, barictinib will soon be tested in an accelerated clinical trial as a potential cure for the overactive immune system response called a cytokine storm which has killed countless coronavirus patients.

Early assessments of barictinib’s effectiveness suggest that Benevolent AI’s algorithms may be right on the money. Four independent studies have indicated that the drug may be effective in preventing cytokine storms. In the largest out of the four studies, carried out by the Hospital of Prato in Italy, deaths were significantly lower among the patients treated with baricitinib as opposed to the control group, and baricitinib patients were vastly more likely to be discharged from the hospital within two weeks.

Countless other European startups in the healthtech sector have rolled out special initiatives to help combat the pandemic— lending a helping hand and, at the same time, showcasing their ground-breaking products. These companies are offering high-tech interventions that are enabling people – including health professionals – to work more effectively from home, as well as delivering tools and platforms that are providing parents and students with opportunities for remote learning.

Appointment booking platform Doctolib—one of France’s five startup unicorns— has made its teleconsultation platform freely available to all doctors in France, while others, like Estonian digital startup Velmio, Zurich-based Scandit and Babylon Health, the British digital health unicorn, have pledged resources to tracking, testing and collating data on Covid-19.

Fighting for a brighter future

Keeping the European startup ecosystem alive and functioning as the world adapts to post-pandemic conditions has been a big priority for the European Commission. The €10bn pot promised by the European Innovation Council to amass ‘the biggest deeptech equity fund in Europe’, added to a generous €13bn budget for research grant, has the potential to change the game for tech startups.

As tensions between the US and China create fresh opportunities for the bloc to attract inward investment – especially as the practice of remote and distributed working gains ground – Europe could find itself ideally placed to challenge the status quo. Europe’s acknowledged primacy in areas such as energy and aerospace could also give credence to the bloc’s bid for global tech leadership.  As Europe recovers from the economic downturn it may well be European startups’ turn to shine.

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EU plan to tackle #COVID-19 drug shortages hit by health budget cuts

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A decision to focus its fiscal firepower on economic recovery has forced the EU to sharply scale back plans to address chronic shortages of drugs, including COVID-19 treatments, by bringing back manufacturing capacity from Asia, writes Francesco Guarascio @fraguarascio.

As part of a budget deal to relaunch the economy that they agreed early on Tuesday (21 July) after a marathon summit, European Union leaders cut planned health-care expenditure to 2027 by 80%.

The bloc has for years faced shortages of critical drugs, including vaccines and antibiotics, and now is struggling to buy medicines needed by COVID-19 patients in intensive care units.

To address those problems, its executive commission had proposed creating from scratch a common seven-year health budget worth 9.4 billion euros (8.5 billion pounds).

Shortages have worsened during the COVID-19 crisis, as supply chains were disrupted and drug exporting countries temporarily focused on their domestic markets. The EU is heavily dependent on medicines and medical ingredients from India and China.

However, pressed by the urgent need to relaunch the wider economy, the EU leaders cut the health-care fund to €1.7 billion.

“We regret that our very ambitious proposal was not followed entirely,” a commission spokesman said on Wednesday, though the new health budget was deemed “a good starting point”.

The EU had planned to offer financial incentives to drugmakers to move some of their Asian plants to Europe, but may now need to revise its plans.

The bloc’s exposure to drug shortages, despite its financial might, is currently laid bare by the difficulties it faces in buying the analgesics, anaesthetics and resuscitation drugs that are needed to treat critically ill COVID-19 patients.

The commission is assessing offers after a first tender launched on June 29 on behalf of 10 EU states was not successful, a spokesman said.

Joint tenders are meant to avoid competition among member states for drugs and critical equipment.

Advance purchase deals with makers of potential COVID-19 vaccines and other drugs in development are not affected by the budget cuts as they rely on emergency funds already available.

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