Coronavirus Spurs Lawmakers to Look at Ways to Strengthen U.S. Drug Manufacturing

By Elizabeth Brotherton-Bunch
Mar 12 2020 |
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One of the lessons of this crisis? The U.S. is far too dependent on imports for our medicine.

The United States is ramping up its efforts to mitigate the potentially devastating impacts of the Coronavirus – and that must be the top priority right now.

Sports leagues are now delaying or canceling games, as are music festivals and comedy shows and parades and a whole other host of events. Meanwhile, many workers who are able to work from home are doing so – the entire team at the Alliance for American Manufacturing is now remote – and vacations like cruises and trips to theme parks also are being delayed.

This is the right thing to do. Addressing the immediate public health threats of COVID-19 is paramount.

But there are also a number of long-term lessons emerging from the crisis that we must act on once the immediate threat dissipates (which hopefully will be sooner rather than later). One of the big things? America’s dependence on imports for its medicine and key medical supplies.

And it is an issue that is starting to gain traction on Capitol Hill, as bipartisan lawmakers have introduced several pieces of legislation designed to shore up America’s domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing base.

The Problem

About 80 percent of the active ingredients in pharmaceutical and over-the-counter medications – everything from aspirin to cancer meds – are imported from China and India. Right now, the United States simply does not have the capacity to make most of the medicine Americans need.

That… is not ideal.

After China shut down factory production in response to the outbreak, there were some disruptions to the supply chain, and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) reported at least one drug shortage. It’s not just China, either: the Indian government ordered its companies to stop exporting 26 drug and drug ingredients, and other countries have stopped exports of things like facemasks because of worries that their own supplies will run out.

But that wasn’t the only issue. The FDA also has suspended inspections of food, drugs, and medical supplies through at least April because of the Coronavirus. This is alarming, given that there have been issues in recent years with drugs imported from China.

In 2018, the FDA recalled drugs with the ingredient Valsartan, which is used to treat conditions like high blood pressure and heart failure. The recalled Valsartan contained a potential carcinogen; all of it came from China. Between 2007 and 2008, at least 246 people died because of contaminates in the drug thinner Heparin, which was also made in China.

But despite both the very legitimate fears of shortages and the lack of oversight on the medicine that is coming in, there’s actually little the United States can do in the immediate term. We’ve ceded so much of our pharmaceutical manufacturing and supply chain to other countries that it is a huge challenge to quickly resume production here.

What is needed is a long-term effort to restore this critical manufacturing, ensuring that in a future time of crisis the United States is able to produce the medicine and supplies needed to protect the public.

Congressional Response

The good news is that there is recognition on Capitol Hill that there is a problem, and lawmakers already are putting forth their ideas for addressing it.

On Thursday, the Senate Small Business Committee held a hearing examining ways that small businesses can help address the crisis. That hearing was chaired by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), who has called for investment in rebuilding our domestic pharmaceutical supply chain.

Meanwhile, several Members of Congress have introduced legislation to tackle the issue, including a bipartisan measure put forth this week by Sens. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) and Bob Menendez (D-N.J.) to invested $100 million to develop U.S. manufacturing of drugs.

Reps. Mark Pocan (D-Wis.) and Mike Gallagher (R-Wis.) introduced a bill earlier this month that would give the FDA authority to identify sourcing locations for medical supplies, while Reps. John Garamendi (D-Calif.) and Vicky Hartzler (R-Mo.) offered legislation last year to require the Defense Department to purchase only American-made medicines and vaccines.

The Trump administration also is considering ways to strengthen U.S. pharmaceutical production, including through stronger Buy America preferences.

Again, the priority right now must be to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 and do everything we can to limit the virus’s spread. But after the crisis is over, the United States should not forget this moment. In the months and years ahead, we need to do everything possible to ensure we are better prepared for future crises, which includes making sure we can make our own medicine and key medical supplies.