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Australia risks losing leading pharma opium supplier status

By Gareth MacDonald+

13-Mar-2014
Last updated on 13-Mar-2014 at 15:44 GMT

Australia may lose its status as the leading supplier of pharma grade opium if it does not comply with Big Pharma requests and allow cultivation of the crop on the mainland.

This week the Financial Times reported that GSK and J&J have asked the Australian Government to allow the growth of opium poppies outside Tasmania, which is currently the source of around half the world’s pharmaceutical opium.

The drugmakers warned that increasing global demand for painkillers coupled with the island’s frequent droughts threaten supplies.

At present, GSK sources all of its raw opium in Tasmania according to spokeswoman Sarah Spenser, who told in-Pharmatechnologist.com the firm contracts growers who are paid based on the alkaloid content of their crops, which is in part determined by climate.

Weather, soil type, water, climate all effect the alkaloid content. Alkaloid is the active ingredient if you like and is what products such as thebaine, morphine and codeine is made from.”

But while weather is a factor, growing demand for painkillers is also a potential problem for supply chains if Australia does not relax its cultivation laws.

Spenser said that: “The FT article mentioned drought in Tasmania as a cause of short supply, however, we believe it is more due to increased demand and the unpredictable nature of weather that means sometimes product supply is short.

No growth, other sources

If Australian does not allow growth of the crop on the mainland GSK would consider finding alternative sources Spenser said.

If the Government did not allow the expansion of poppy growing into mainland Australia, it would restrict growth of the industry significantly” she said adding that, in contrast, GSK's “opiates business would continue to operate as it does now and perhaps other options could be considered for expansion.” 

While she did not name any other potential sources, Spenser did point out that: “GSK sources final opium based ingredients such as codeine from other countries not just Tasmanian crops.”

Victoria trial

Whether the Australian Government will decline GSK and J&Js request this remains to be seen.

However, GSK’s decision to start trial cultivation of crops on the mainland in July last year suggests the firm is pretty confident its request will be granted.

Spenser said that: “We view Victoria as supplementing Tasmanian supply, not replacing it. Exploring Victorian production will ensure we can meet the growing demands of our customers and spreads geographic supply risks.”

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