By Francesco Guarascio
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Europe is experiencing delays in supplies of medicines and face masks because of coronavirus disruptions, according to EU and industry officials, compounding already acute shortages of drugs on the continent.
Many countries around the world rely on China, the source of the outbreak, for drug ingredients in an age of global supply chains, and are grappling with how to avoid shortages of vital medicines.
The European Union is assessing the delays in drug shipments from Asia, a senior official from the EU Commission said, as France warned it was over-dependent on China with about 40% of the country's drug ingredients imported from there.
The European concerns come as India, which is the world's main supplier of generic medicines and also relies on Chinese ingredients, decided to restrict some drug exports.
"Many active pharmaceutical ingredients are produced in China and the virus outbreak is affecting the manufacturing capacity and stability of the supply of these ingredients," the European Medicines Agency, an EU body, told Reuters.
"This could potentially lead to shortages of medicines worldwide."
The Commission, the EU's executive arm, said it had not yet seen shortages in the bloc caused by the virus. But any hit to supplies due to the outbreak could worsen existing shortfalls.
NEEDED: FACE MASKS
A survey of 24 EU countries at the end of last year found all had experienced shortages of medicines in 2019, while the number of drugs in short supply grew in most states, according to the Pharmaceutical Group of the European Union (PGEU), a trade body.
Respiratory medications were not sufficiently available in nearly all surveyed states, the report found , raising worries about the EU's preparedness for a large outbreak of coronavirus, which can cause pneumonia and other breathing illnesses.
Jan De Belie of the PGEU said that, as well as China, Europe could face supply problems from northern Italy, a region where many drug producers operate and which has suffered the worst outbreak of the new coronavirus outside Asia.
EU officials also warn the bloc is running short of face masks and other personal protective gear because of soaring demand, particularly in Italy.
Last week, the Commission launched a joint procurement effort on behalf of 20 EU states. But officials said that even if they could secure supplies, they were unlikely to be delivered before April.
"There is a shortage in the market for these products," a Commission official told EU lawmakers in a hearing on Thursday. "We will have difficulty in meeting all the anticipated needs of member states."
The official added the shortage caused dangers to medical staff, who are more exposed to infections, and warned about risks of not having enough healthcare workers if the outbreak spread further. Currently there are more than 4,000 case detected across EU states.
To counter the possible dearth of medical staff, the official told a second hearing later on Thursday that EU governments were considering mobilising retired medical workers and students to cope with the outbreak.
On Friday EU health ministers will hold emergency talks in Brussels on coordinated measures to combat the epidemic.
(Reporting by Francesco Guarascio; Editing by Pravin Char)