By Rosemary Gibson
If the global pandemic has taught us anything, America needs to be more self-reliant and make its own medicines.
As the coronavirus spread to the U.S., the federal government and hospitals struggled to buy medicines, ventilators, and masks. Soon, it became clear that all roads lead to China as the world’s primary supplier.
Shortages of essential medicines began as early as February 2020, before the coronavirus peaked. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported a drug was in severe shortage because of the coronavirus outbreak in China. To prevent hoarding, U.S. federal officials didn’t release the name of the medicine. Other essential generic drugs have been rationed by drug wholesalers that supply hospitals.
China: Pandemic Epicenter and World Hub for Medicines and Supplies
The epicenter of the pandemic, Wuhan, is a major manufacturing hub for antibiotics.
In severe cases of coronavirus, secondary bacterial infections can occur and antibiotics are necessary to treat them.
China also produces 90 percent of the world’s supply of key chemicals to make sedatives for people on ventilators and other generics needed to care for the seriously ill, according to pharmaceutical engineers and chemists.
As the coronavirus spread to more than 100 countries, everyone was competing for the same limited supply of medicines and personal protective gear. This situation was predicted in a 2019 article in Military Officer magazine, based on the book, China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine: “In a global health crisis, the Chinese government would keep supplies for its people. The U.S. would stand in line behind other countries to buy essential drugs for its citizens.”
In the competitive frenzy, the Chinese government banned the export of N95 masks destined for the U.S. It also nationalized a factory that was producing them.
From late January to the end of February, China bought 2.2 billion face masks from countries around the world, a White House trade adviser said, contributing to shortages for U.S. doctors, nurses, and other health care workers and the public.
Another lesson learned is America can’t rely on its allies for needed supplies in a global pandemic. More than 70 countries, including the United Kingdom and many countries in the European Union, banned or restricted exports of medicines and supplies to ensure they had enough for their own people, the White House Office of Trade and Manufacturing Policy said in news reports.
Many Chinese products sold to the United States and other countries were defective. In June, the U.S. Department of Justice charged a Chinese manufacturer with selling masks that didn’t protect health care workers and the public. The U.S. was reportedly flooded with test kits from China that that gave inaccurate readings. Millions of supposedly sterile surgical gowns were recalled because they were found to be potentially contaminated, which could have increased the risk of spreading infection.
As for the safety of generic medicines, the FDA has been unable to conduct inspections of drug manufacturing plants in China and other countries because the agency recalled its inspectors earlier this year. This severely constrains its ability to protect the public.
[TAKE ACTION: Congress Must Secure America’s Pharmaceutical Supply]
In normal times the FDA is challenged by a complex global supply chain. In July 2018, the agency recalled blood pressure medicines taken by millions of Americans including U.S. service members and their families. They contained potentially cancer-causing chemicals used to make rocket fuel. A company in China was found to have a product containing more than 200 times the acceptable limit per pill.
China Threatens to Stop Supplying Medicines
As America was in a peak period of coronavirus cases, the Chinese government threatened to cut off medicines to the United States. Its official news outlet reported, “If China announces that its drugs are for domestic use and bans exports, the United States will fall into the hell of a new coronavirus epidemic.”
The United States has witnessed a preview of biowarfare and the nation is unprepared. Eighty percent of the contents in the Strategic National Stockpile depend on Chinese components and suppliers. America would not rely on China to replenish the Strategic Petroleum Reserve. Neither should the nation’s stockpile of life-saving medicines and supplies depend on a foreign country.
America must invest in domestic manufacturing to assure the nation has the industrial base to make products essential for survival.
Members of Congress have raised concerns about U.S. dependence on China for medicines, and bipartisan bills have been introduced in the House and Senate to support U.S. manufacturing.
A “Buy American” executive order is under review that would encourage the Department of Defense, the VA, and the Department of Health and Human Services to use taxpayer money to buy American-made medicines and medical supplies necessary to respond in a public health emergency.
A valuable lesson of the pandemic is the urgency to be self-sufficient. The economy will receive a needed boost, investments in manufacturing will create jobs, and the nation’s health security will be strengthened.
Rosemary Gibson is senior adviser at the Hastings Center and author of China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine.
Note from MOAA: MOAA certainly is concerned regarding any issue associated with the safety of medications. The COVID-19 pandemic further showed how a reliance on foreign-made medications poses a threat to our national security. Our members continue to voice their worries, too. While there are many macro forces impacting our national industrial base, the risks to the pharmaceutical sector should come under closer examination.
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