Spain to set price controls on Covid-19 antigen tests, but critics say measure is too late

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez also announced plans to purchase 344,000 doses of the antiviral medication Paxlovid

Covid Spain
A woman prepares to take an antigen test.PACO PUENTES
Oriol Güell

Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez announced on Monday that the government would set price controls on the cost of rapid antigen tests for Covid-19. The news was well received by the pharmaceutical sector, consumer associations and political parties. But many have also said the measure comes too late, arguing it should have been introduced before Christmas, when soaring demand for antigen tests left pharmacies without stock and saw prices shoot up. Health experts also warned of the risk of introducing price controls when supply has been normalized and prices are falling again.

“The debate that we were having before and during Christmas was, above all, on the supply of these tests. There was an exponential increase in demand, but not in supply,” Sánchez explained on Monday in an interview with the Cadena SER radio network. “This issue is now resolved; now we are going to work on the price control of antigen tests.”

This decision was warmly welcomed by the pharmaceutical sector, which expressed its relief. “It will help put an end to a situation that we have repeatedly denounced and one in which pharmacies have been the victims, with excessive increases in prices and market tensions due to third parties that are not part of the pharmaceutical chain,” the General Pharmacy Council stated in a press release.

According to the healthcare data science company IQVIA, 11.2 million diagnostic tests were sold in Spain between December 13 and 26. This is more than half of the 20.4 million tests that have been sold in the country since the Spanish Health Ministry approved their sale in pharmacies in July.

If the government imposes a low price that is not attractive to companies, this could lead to chronic shortages
Beatriz González López-Valcárcel, professor and researcher of health economics

A spokesperson from the Health Ministry declined to offer more details on the price control measure and when it will come into place, saying that Health Minister Carolina Darias will provide more details on Wednesday at the press conference following the weekly meeting of the Inter-Territorial Council of the National Health System, which brings together health officials from the central and regional governments.

Political leaders also welcomed the news, but argued that the measure should have been introduced earlier. Pablo Montesinos, deputy secretary of communication for the conservative Popular Party (PP), said that his group had called for price controls before Christmas. “The government is always late, but at least they listen to our proposals,” he said.

Consumer group Facua, which also called for price controls on antigen tests in December, applauded the decision but agreed it should have been introduced before “millions of citizens” purchased tests en masse.

A spokesperson for the Federation of Pharmaceutical Distributors (FEDIFAR), which represents companies that control 97% of the market, told EL PAÍS that shortages of antigen tests are no longer a problem. “There are tests in every pharmacy and the prices are falling because now supply exceeds demand,” they said.

The cost of an antigen test, which under normal circumstances is around €5, shot up to between €10 and €12 two weeks ago due to the shortages. According to pharmacies, in this period they began to receive offers from intermediaries looking to take advantage of the situation by offering tests at much higher prices, a problem that continued until large distributors were able to replenish the supply.

According to Beatriz González López-Valcárcel, a professor and researcher of health economics, price controls should only be considered as a last resort. “It’s justified if it can be proven that the existing prices are abusive and have risen without justification, although it also comes with risks because it introduces distortions in the market,” she said. “If the government imposes a low price that is not attractive to companies, who may prefer to sell to other countries, this could lead to chronic shortages that are more difficult to solve. Regulating prices is always tricky.”

Antiviral drug

In Monday’s interview with the Cadena SER radio network, Pedro Sánchez also announced plans to purchase 344,000 doses of the antiviral medication Paxlovid in January. This medication, developed by Pfizer, is reported to be 90% effective against severe cases of Covid-19.

Jesús Sierra, from the Spanish Society of Hospital Pharmacies (SEFH), said the drug has the “potential to reduce hospitalizations that are currently happening in the two profiles with greater risk: unvaccinated people and those who are but who suffer underlying illnesses or immunosuppression that weakens their immune response.”

One of the many advantages of Paxlovid is the ease of administration – it is taken orally – and the fact that it can be taken immediately after the onset of symptoms before a person’s condition worsens. The patient must take 30 pills over five days.

Paxlovid is not yet authorized by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), but on December 16, the organization did issue its first recommendations for countries that wanted to start administering the medication earlier in emergency services and other areas.

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