Government purchasing strictures means lab chemicals can cost up to 70% more than in other European countries

Prominent Croatian scientists are calling for better regulation of the domestic market for laboratory chemicals and reagents as prices can be as much as 70% higher than in other European countries. But they may have to wait for Croatia to join the EU in 2013 before they see any action taken.

The price of reagents is one of the biggest problems Croatian scientists face, according to Bojan Polic, vice dean for scientific affairs in the faculty of medicine at the University of Rijeka. Although Croatian scientists receive far less research funding than colleagues in other Western countries, the prices they pay for lab chemicals is far higher, he says, calling for the science and other ministries to look into regulating this market.

For example, the price for antibodies is 400-660 euros, compared with 100-300 euros in the US and Europe. Fetal calf serum, used to grow cell cultures, is also around 660 euros per half litre bottle in Croatia, compared with 80 euros in Germany for the same product. ‘It’s similar with chemicals when one compares prices of big manufacturers such as Sigma-Aldrich and those of local distributers,’ says Polic.  

‘For some chemicals, such as solvents, which you may need urgently, our companies that sell them will deliver them quickly but at a much higher price,’ says Danko Skare, editor of the Croatian journal Chemistry in Industry. ‘They only re-package the chemicals and make a fat profit on it.’  

Impoverished scientists

Current regulations favour distributers, over scientists, says Polic. ‘They are getting rich on the back of impoverished scientific budgets.’ And big companies often don’t want to sell chemicals directly to such a small market.  

Stipan Jonjic, chair of centre for proteomics at University of Rijeka, who wrote about the problem in Nature in 2004,1 says things have not improved since then.  On average, reagent prices are 30-70% higher in Croatia, he says.  

Buying direct from manufacturers abroad is usually not an option, even if the prices are substantially cheaper, says Jonjic, because Croatian laws require public tender to procure lab equipment. ‘No-one minds if we pay three times more, so long as there was a public tender, but at the same time we’re committing an offence if we buy the same product directly from abroad for much less money,’ Jonjic says.  

‘Our scientific community is quite small, and there are quite a few dealers, and so to survive, they blow up the prices,’ Jonjic says. ‘Since we’re small, there is no interest from big manufacturers to protect us, which closes the vicious circle.’ He says universities or even the state should step in and make favourable deals with the big manufacturers to get lower prices, as many other countries do.  

Distributors contacted by Chemistry World, such as KEFO and Medical Intertrade, claim the prices are inflated due to various costs during importation and shipment. Mladen Kristofic, vice president of the board for Kemika, the only Croatia-based laboratory chemicals manufacturer, says most of its home made portfolio is 20-30% cheaper than abroad.  

However, if someone orders a substance Kemika does not manufacture it has to source it from abroad, Kristofic says. Once all the permits, translations of safety data sheets and transport costs are covered, ‘it turns out the substance is several times more expensive than the catalogue price’, he adds. He doubts entering the EU would change anything though, and also blames the Croatian regulation that requires public tender to procure chemicals, which drives prices up.

The Croatian ministry of science did not have an official position, but its spokesperson, Ivana Kalogjera, says: ‘Unfortunately, today in Croatia the situation is as it is, but we deeply believe that with Croatia’s entry to the EU, that market will also be regulated.’