Russia is facing a drug shortage crisis which is having a particular impact on patients with life-threatening conditions. A combination of geopolitical and bureaucratic issues are restricting the flow of medications to the patients who need them the most.


An alarming shortage of medicines in Russia is driving some patients to drastic measures to obtain necessary treatments. The drug shortages particularly impact patients receiving treatments for cancer, HIV and other life-threatening conditions. There have been a series of recent scandals over the arrest of mothers in Russia for attempting to purchase unregistered medicines for their sick children. According to RT News, a Russian woman was reportedly held by customs officials for seven hours after ordering an unregistered drug online for her terminally ill son. Others are being compelled to travel hundreds or thousands of miles to obtain treatment because the medicines they need are unavailable in their regions.


Drug shortages are widespread throughout Europe according to Medicines for Europe, an organisation focused on tackling the complicated issue. The reasons for the shortages in Russia have their roots in geopolitics. Russian officials have been quick to blame drug shortages on sanctions imposed by the West. The country’s first deputy minister of industry and trade, Sergey Tsyb commented in November 2018, “They [the West] try to reassure us by saying that there has been no historical precedent for an embargo of medicine, but I have clarified that there has been an embargo [against Russia] in a number of countries, at least in an indirect way. That is, yes, they don’t directly prohibit companies from selling medicines [to Russia], but the economic chain has been paralyzed, as a result of which producers have been afraid or deprived of the possibility of selling pharmaceuticals to countries affected by sanctions.”


On the other hand, the Russian government keeps a tight rein on foreign medicine imports, resorting to a nationalist policy in which products which were previously imported from abroad are to be replaced by products produced in Russia and its allies in the Eurasian Economic Union, which includes Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. This ban on imports has led to the withdrawal of Medac, the primary world producer of asparaginase, which is used to treat acute lymphoblastic leukaemia, acute myeloid leukaemia, and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.  


Furthermore, some of the medications on the World Health Organization (WHO) Model List of Essential Medicines are not regularly available in Russia because they have not been registered with the Russian government, and therefore cannot be legally bought or sold in Russia, regardless of doctors’ prescriptions. One such unregistered medicine is diazepam rectal solution, commonly used to treat epilepsy in children. According to hospice workers, at least 23,000 Russian children are in need of diazepam and similar medications.


Even medicines which are registered are facing shortages, including antiretroviral therapy Lamivudine for HIV patients, due to a new medication procurement procedure enacted in 2017 to centralise the purchase of HIV drugs by the Health Ministry. This year’s procurement led to three failed tenders, resulting in the purchase of Lamivudine for only 400,000 of the more than 900,000 HIV patients in need of the treatment.