The Economics of Parallel Trade


The potential for parallel trade in the European Union (EU) has grown with the accession of low price countries and the harmonisation of registration requirements. Parallel trade implies a conflict between the principle of autonomy of member states to set their own pharmaceutical prices, the principle of free trade and the industrial policy goal of promoting innovative research and development (R&D).

Parallel trade in pharmaceuticals does not yield the normal efficiency gains from trade because countries achieve low pharmaceutical prices by aggressive regulation, not through superior efficiency. In fact, parallel trade reduces economic welfare by undermining price differentials between markets. Pharmaceutical R&D is a global joint cost of serving all consumers worldwide; it accounts for roughly 30% of total costs. Optimal (welfare maximising) pricing to cover joint costs (Ramsey pricing) requires setting different prices in different markets, based on inverse demand elasticities. By contrast, parallel trade and regulation based on international price comparisons tend to force price convergence across markets. In response, manufacturers attempt to set a uniform ‘euro’ price. The primary losers from ‘euro’ pricing will be consumers in low income countries who will face higher prices or loss of access to new drugs. In the long run, even higher income countries are likely to be worse off with uniform prices, because fewer drugs will be developed.

One policy option to preserve price differentials is to exempt on—patent products from parallel trade. An alternative is confidential contracting between individual manufacturers and governments to provide country—specific ex post discounts from the single ‘euro’ wholesale price, similar to rebates used by managed care in the US. This would preserve differentials in transactions prices even if parallel trade forces convergence of wholesale prices.

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Correspondence to Dr Patricia M. Danzon.

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Danzon, P.M. The Economics of Parallel Trade. Pharmacoeconomics 13, 293–304 (1998).

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