After undergoing heart surgery not long ago, Yelena Dmitriyeva was put on a rotation of four different medications. All of them are imported. All of them are now in short supply in her southern Russian city, Rostov-on-Don.
“There are no lines, but the one medicine I need, I've been looking around in all the pharmacies. My son went around to many pharmacies.… It’s just disappeared, disappeared,” she told Current Time. The thyroid medication she needs? “In Rostov, it’s nowhere to be found,” she said.
Nailya Musina, who lives about 1,700 kilometers to the north in the Volga River town of Menzelinsk, is having the same problem trying to locate a drug that helps prevent ovarian cancer. Fortunately, her daughter, who lives in Turkey, managed to locate a comparable drug and had it shipped to Russia by mail.
“I was very worried…. I was short of breath. I’m lucky to have my daughter who lives abroad, but not all people have that option,” she told RFE/RL’s Tatar-Bashkir Service. “I feel sorry for all the people who have epilepsy. What will happen to them?”
Russia is undergoing a shock of the kind not seen since the early 1990s, after the Soviet collapse and the initial efforts to rebuild the country’s economy into a market system. This time, the shock is from the punishing sanctions the West has imposed on Moscow in response to the invasion of Ukraine, now nearing its fifth week. Foreign companies are also suspending operations or pulling out of Russia altogether.
By some estimations, Russia’s economy could contract by as much as 15 percent in 2022 as foreign companies suspend operations, exporters halt trade, and the ruble plummets.
Reports of some consumer goods shortages have already emerged; staples like sugar and buckwheat have been reported in short supply in some grocery stores.
Medicines, too, are beginning to become scarce.
For the moment, it’s unclear how much of that is due to imports being suspended and how much is down to people panic-buying and stocking up on medicines in anticipation of possible shortages.
But regardless of the cause, it’s a concern given that Russia’s homegrown pharmaceutical industry is relatively small, and many of the most advanced drugs and medicines prescribed in Russia come from, or are made by, foreign manufacturers.
Among the multinational chemical giants that have either curtailed exports or manufacturing are Germany’s Bayer and the U.S. companies Pfizer and Eli Lilly.
In Moscow, pharmacies have reported shortages of fever-reducing medications -- things like paracetamol or acetaminophen or ibuprofen -- as well as painkillers for children, according to the business newspaper RBC.
And the reports -- and complaints -- of shortages are coming not just from patients, but also from doctors. In a survey of 3,317 physicians conducted from March 14 to March 21 by the VrachiRF professional community, a majority of respondents reported shortages of more than 80 pharmaceuticals.
The results of the study were published on March 21 by the business newspaper Vedomosti.
Doctors reported shortages in everything from anti-inflammatory and anti-epileptic or anticonvulsant drugs to things like antidepressants, oral contraceptives, some types of insulins, and drugs used to treat some kinds of diabetes.
Experts say it’s possible that, after the shock of the sanctions and company withdrawals -- which were swifter and harsher than many Western and Russian analysts had anticipated -- wears off, Russian import markets and domestic manufacturing will adjust. For example, India has a massive industry for manufacturing generic pharmaceuticals and has not joined the sanctions imposed by the West.
Still, Russian authorities are sensitive to any possible domestic unrest. While there have been some protests against the war, analysts say unhappiness with inflation, rising food prices, or shortages for food staples or medicine have a greater potential to lead to more widespread demonstrations.
Apparently seeking to ease concerns and head off any unrest, Health Minister Mikhail Murashko claimed on state TV on March 19 that there “have been no jumps, no problems” in pricing for essential, life-saving drugs.
On March 22, the lower house of parliament passed а bevy of new regulations aimed at bolstering the market and the manufacture of prescription drugs and other medical equipment in Russia. The new rules include a measure that bars makers of durable medical equipment and devices from suspending or terminating their activities in Russia without six months’ notice.
In Ufa, the capital of the central region of Bashkortostan, drug shoppers complained of a sharp rise in prices in recent weeks. And in one pharmacy, managers have hung ads on the walls promising there will be no shortages for either domestic or foreign, imported medications.
“Here, for example, I use an [anti-microbial] ointment,” one woman, Olga Ivanova, told Current Time, the Russian-language network run by RFE/RL in cooperation with VOA. “And what do you end up with? It used to cost 450 rubles ($4.34), and now I got it a week or 10 days later, and it’s 562 ($5.42).
“I was buying medicine that I needed, imported medications," another woman, Olga Chizhik, said. “It went up literally by 300 rubles, to 400 rubles.”
Aleksandr Kurmyshkin, a former representative of several American pharmaceutical companies, said the supply problems with imported drugs were likely a temporary phenomenon.
“I know from experience of previous crises like this that foreign suppliers, as a rule, they appreciate the Russian market. They understand that with regard to our patients the state is doing its job,” he said.
He said the government may have to step in, for example, to restructure debts of importers and suppliers.
“But while these negotiations are going on, in the next three or four months there really will be some kind of deficit for sure,” he said.
'Maybe In A Month We’ll Know Something'
Shortages have also been reported for some medications in St. Petersburg, Russia’s second-largest city and one of the wealthier urban centers in the country.
Veronika Kushlyanskaya, who suffers from the autoimmune disorder Crohn's disease, said the medications she needs have already disappeared from pharmacies; the last time she was able to buy them was at the beginning of March.
“I also talk to other people who have the same problem. They’re all looking for the medications, panicking, asking: ‘Where can I find it? Who has it still?’” she said. “So, I understand this is a problem not just in Petersburg, but in the regions too.”
“I think it makes sense for all patients with my diagnosis and in general to stock up on more drugs for the next couple of months, because they will either disappear or get very expensive,” she said.
And the same is also true in Russia’s wealthiest city, Moscow, where medicine shortages are particularly painful for nongovernment charities like House With A Beacon, a hospice center for children with terminal illnesses.
Some medicines “have disappeared altogether. We go to buy them but there are no stockpiles,” said Lida Moniava, the development director for the organization. Pharmacies and wholesalers “are constantly saying, ‘I don’t know. Maybe in a month we’ll know something’ for all sorts of medicines.”