Anyone trying to source or supply veterinary medicines in the last year will have found issues and difficulties – on occasion threatening animal welfare and limiting the ability to responsibly supply and use these medicines.

There have been severe shortages of vaccines, reduced availability of antibiotics, vitamins, minerals plus fluke and worm treatments, which have resulted in animals not being properly vaccinated or appropriate treatments not being available when required.

We currently have dozens of unavailable products and just as many reasons behind their supply problems.

The heart of the problem seems to be the globalised nature of the drug industry. Communications from drug companies are often very poor, with little or no warning of supply issues. But generic statements blaming increased demand, international manufacturing and logistic challenges, together with changing regulatory processes seem to be the most commonly used excuses.

The whole veterinary medicines industry is tightly regulated, products are under strict licencing controls and batch testing. With global supply chains, many products contain multiple constituents or ingredients, these may be manufactured on one continent, formulated in another and packaged on a third. Complex trade agreements and legislation can impact the smooth movement around the globe and into the UK.

Once product arrives in the UK, it is generally distributed to several large wholesalers, supplying veterinary practices and agricultural merchants. Theoretically, wholesalers should hold three months' supply of high-volume products. This system works if the drug company can supply a level production and the wholesaler carries plenty of stock. Out of date medicines are costly to dispose of, so drug companies tend to manufacture just enough product meet demand.

Issues can arise particularly when products have a short shelf-life, like vaccines. Vaccine use tends to be seasonal, therefore, you would think, predictable? Some of our niche vaccines, only supplied by one or two drug companies are most susceptible to problems. Vaccine factories tend to run on a tight production schedule, this limits the amount the factory can supply if demand increases or catastrophic supply problems if batches fail quality control putting back supply weeks or months.

Global supply chains run on a ‘just-in-time' strategy. Which is efficient, limits waste and storage. However, if and when there are changes in the supply chain, it can be difficult to meet demand. We’ve seen this in the automotive industry with the supply of semiconductor chips or supermarket shelves running empty during the covid pandemic.

There can also be knock-on effects if there has been a problem with the supply of a market leader product. There may be similar products made by other companies which serve a similar role. However, these drug companies are affected by their own supply-chain issues, when demand for one of their products dramatically increases, their wholesaler stock is cleared, and they can’t ‘turn-on’ the tap at their factory to meet the increased demand and shelves are left empty.

Panic buying or hording by suppliers, will temporarily help supply their customers but leads to further shortages for the industry nationally.

Product consolidation: Certain medicines, including antibiotics have been dropped by drug company portfolios. When re-licencing products, companies must look at the cost-benefit of manufacturing and supplying their range of products. Some significant ‘brand names’ have been dropped from our UK supply due to their global insignificance.

As an industry, we try and source and supply alternatives. Some of these alternatives may not be directly licenced for use in the UK but can be imported using a ‘Special Import Certificate’ (SIC). This is why some of our products now have foreign packaging and data sheets, as there may be no UK alternative.

As suppliers of veterinary medicines, we want to have a constant, stress-free supply. With the ability to supply medicines responsibly, in line with our recommendations and within our herd health plans.

The UK livestock industry has become much better at responsible use of veterinary medicines. antibiotic use had decreased significantly, especially our Critically Important Antibiotics (CIA).

Respiratory disease, mastitis and lameness are still the most common diseases requiring antibiotic treatment. All three of these diseases can be reduced by changing management practices, housing and the use of targeted vaccine programs. Make sure you have an up-to-date health plan to ensure we don’t need to rely on certain veterinary medicines and have an alternative plan if needed. Vaccine use has increased, and we rely on the pharmaceutical industries to be able to supply the demand.

When using vaccines, we highly recommend planning ahead. Sheep abortion vaccines need to be given well before tupping, order well in advance and consider vaccinating gimmers earlier than maybe usual. Many vaccines are a two-dose primary course, several weeks apart. It is really important animals receive both doses as per data sheet. We suggest ordering enough quantity for both doses, if expiry dates allow.

It is a complex, multi-factorial problem but it would be helpful if the drug companies and wholesalers could sort out their supply chains, improve their communications, produce and supply enough product for times of predicable high demand.