Methadone and buprenorphine-related deaths among people prescribed and not prescribed Opioid Agonist Therapy during the COVID-19 pandemic in England

D. Aldabergenov, L. Reynolds, J. Scott, M. J. Kelleher, J. Strang, C. S. Copeland, N. J. Kalk

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BACKGROUND: The coronavirus pandemic resulted in many changes which had the potential to impact mortality related to opioid agonist therapy (OAT; methadone, buprenorphine), including changes in the prescribing and dispensing of OAT and patterns of drug availability and use. We aimed to assess the impact of the first lockdown (initiated March 23rd 2020) on methadone- and buprenorphine-related deaths in England in people both prescribed and not prescribed OAT using data from the National Programme on Substance Abuse Deaths. METHODS: This was a retrospective post-mortem toxicology study of OAT-related deaths which occurred in the 3-month period March 23rd to June 22nd in the years 2016-2020. Provisional data regarding numbers accessing treatment for opioid use disorder was provided by the National Drug Treatment Monitoring System. RESULTS: We found a 64% increase in methadone-related deaths in March to June 2020 compared to March to June 2019 (2019 n = 96; 2020 projected n = 157). There were increases in the mortality rate of both in-treatment decedents (22% increase; 2019 n = 45; an exponential smoothing model of the 2016-19 trend [α=0.5] predicted 44 deaths in 2020, 55 were reported) and decedents not prescribed methadone (74% increase; 2019 n = 46; 2016-19 trend predicted 43 deaths in 2020, 80 were reported). There was no increase in buprenorphine-related deaths (2019 n = 9/529; 2020 n = 11/566). There were no changes in the numbers of deaths where other opioids or multiple substances were detected, or in methadone levels detected. Numbers of people accessing treatment for opioid use disorder in 2020 did not decrease relative to previous years (p >0.05). CONCLUSIONS: Methadone-related deaths in non-prescribed individuals, but not prescribed individuals, increased considerably above the annual trend forecast for 2020 during the first COVID-19 lockdown in England. Further studies are thus needed to understand this difference.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)103877
Number of pages1
JournalThe International journal on drug policy
Early online date4 Oct 2022
Publication statusPublished - 31 Dec 2022


  • Buprenorphine
  • COVID-19
  • Drug-related death
  • Methadone
  • Mortality
  • Opioid agonist therapy

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine (miscellaneous)
  • Health Policy


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