Pharmacies in western Ukraine are struggling to get vital medicines out to other branches in northern and eastern parts of the country, where the Russian invasion of Ukraine is currently focused, The Pharmacist has learned.  

Speaking from his home close to the Slovakian border in western Ukraine, Oleg Devinyak, pharmacist and head of pharmacy at Uzhhorod University, told The Pharmacist that severe medicine shortages are emerging in the north and east, at a time when the country needs them most, amid bombardment from Russian forces. 

By law, pharmacies in Ukraine cannot yet accept medicines from humanitarian aid, so are currently reliant on drug manufacturers in Ukraine and other pharmacy branches in the west of the country to transport medicines and health supplies to them. 

But transport is being affected by a shortage of drivers and roadblocks stopping entry to cities surrounded by Russian troops, he said.  

‘These pharmacies suffering severe shortages are having to make do with the remaining medicines they have, which is putting everyone in danger,’ he said.  

Mr Devinyak, whose wife Victoria is a pharmacist at a large Ukrainian chain pharmacy, was concerned that roadblocks placed by Russian troops are preventing medicine deliveries from western pharmacies and manufacturers from reaching some northern and eastern cities.  

‘This is not something which can be fixed by more medicine deliveries. We need cities to be unblocked to make for easy transportation of medicines’, he told The Pharmacist.  

As well as roadblocks preventing entry to some areas, there is currently a shortage of delivery drivers, as many drivers are ‘too afraid’ to make the journey into northern and eastern Ukraine, Mr Devinyak explained.  

‘Russia has said that they will allow food and medicine transport into the cities, but few drivers are brave enough to make the journey since there have been many incidents of shooting at cars,’ he had heard.  

Drugs in short supply 

Mr Devinyak said that pharmacies were particularly requesting emergency deliveries of insulin, suggesting that many pharmacies are running low on the drug. 

A major manufacturer of insulin, Novo Nordisk, said on Tuesday (1 March) that deliveries of drugs from its Ukraine-based plant have been hit ‘due to shortages in driving staff’.  

‘Our warehouse in Ukraine is still in operation. However, deliveries have been and will be impacted due to shortages in driving staff.  

‘We are doing everything we can to get medicines to patients that need them either through pharmacies or humanitarian organisations,’ said the company.  

Mr Devinyak said that drugs and medical supplies often used in times of war and for trauma injuries are also in short supply in the north and east of Ukraine, such as antibiotics and first aid kits.  

On Wednesday (2 March), Ukraine’s health minister Oleh Lyashko spoke of the problem of distributing medicines to pharmacies and hospitals due to the Russian invasion and how he wants to establish a humanitarian corridor for them. 

GlaxoSmithKline, the pharmaceutical giant that supply Ukraine with many of its vaccines, told The Pharmacist today that it was 'working hard to maintain access to our medicines and vaccines in Ukraine, alongside local distributors and logistics partners.'

'This is a fast-evolving situation which we are reviewing regularly,' they added.

Staff shortages  

Pharmacies in war zones are also experiencing staff shortages, as pharmacists are needing to shelter from bombings, and to look after their families, The Pharmacist was told.  

‘Most of the staff in pharmacies in Ukraine are women, and now that many men in Ukraine have left their families to defend their cities, many female pharmacists are left to look after pharmacies and their children,’ said Mr Devinyak, who is head of Pharmaceutical Chamber in the Transcarpathian region in Ukraine, and has good links across the country.  

When asked how his northern and eastern pharmacy colleges may be feeling, he said: ‘I do not think there is a word to describe the emotions of how pharmacists in Ukraine right now.  

‘They are beyond anxious and beyond scared,’ he added. 

Most pharmacies in Ukraine are based on ground floors of buildings or are situated in shopping malls, making them ‘dangerous places to be when bombs hit’, Mr Devinyak said.  

He said that there had already been several cases of missile strikes hitting pharmacies in northern and eastern Ukraine and some incidents of Russian troops ransacking shops shared on Facebook. 

What is happening in western Ukraine? 

Mr Devinyak added that pharmacies at the border in western Ukraine, where he is based, are inundated with refugees who are escaping the bombardments.  

‘The people who arrive are frightened and traumatised, and are in need of pharmaceutical care,’ he explained.  

Pharmacists in the region are working overtime to look after the additional patients, however, they cannot always give the patients what they need as they come without prescriptions,’ Mr Devinyak’s wife, Victoria, said.  

‘Their doctors are based back in northern and eastern Ukraine and the doctors in western Ukraine are very busy, which means patients are sometimes going without the drugs they need,’ Mr Devinyak explained. 

What can UK pharmacies do to help? 

Although pharmacies cannot currently accept medicines directly from other countries, pharmacies may still be able to donate medicines through charitable organisations, which can be distributed to patients through humanitarian aid.  

Some pharmacies are already getting involved. Day Lewis, tweeted yesterday (2 March) that its wholesaler Wells Offshore had plans to ‘immediately’ transport emergency and medical supplies to charities in parts of Ukraine.