The coronavirus outbreak is sparking fears of drug shortages in the U.S., largely due to its disruption of pharmaceutical supplies from China and India.
The Food and Drug Administration has warned of shortages in one drug due to the coronavirus, while penicillin shipments to the U.S. from China have dried up.
The FDA said it expects the outbreak of COVID-19 to cause “potential disruptions to supply or shortages of critical medical products in the U.S.”
China, where many factories have temporarily shuttered due to coronavirus fears, accounts for a majority of raw ingredients used to manufacture finished drugs, said Marianne Udow-Phillips, executive director of the Center for Health and Research Transformation at the University of Michigan.
“Supply chain disruptions could be truly serious for our access to drugs,” Udow-Phillips said. “I think it’s likely the Chinese government will do everything they can do to prevent that disruption because it’s so fundamental to their economy.”
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Antibiotics are particularly at risk because about 85% of their ingredients come from China, said Ron Piervincenzi, CEO of U.S. Pharmacopeia, a nonprofit that sets drug standards throughout the world.
But he said institutions, such as hospitals and health care systems, are already taking steps to shore up their supplies. There’s no need for individuals to take action right now, he said.
While the FDA did not publicly identify the drug that is experiencing shortages, the agency said it’s “due to an issue with manufacturing of an active pharmaceutical ingredient used in the drug.”
“It is important to note that there are other alternatives that can be used by patients,” the FDA said. “We are working with the manufacturer as well as other manufacturers to mitigate the shortage. We will do everything possible to mitigate the shortage.”
The possibility of shortages casts a spotlight on how the U.S. relies too much on China for drugs, said Stephanie Kennan, a member of the federal public affairs group at McGuireWoods Consulting and a former health policy adviser to Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon.
“This is an opportunity for companies to look for different ways to do the supply chain,” she said. “I think it’s an issue that over the long term we need to grapple with because we can’t even manufacture a lot of the drugs inside the United States.”
On Wednesday, the co-chairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — Rep. Mark Pocan, D-Wisconsin, and Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington, sent a letter to the CEOs of major pharmaceutical manufactures requesting information on the possibility of supply chain breakdowns causing drug shortages.
The public health of Americans is at risk if the Chinese market is further hobbled. For example, China shipped virtually no penicillin to the U.S. in the first two months of the year, according to Ocean Audit, which provides analysis of freight data to help companies save costs.
Steve Ferreira, CEO of Ocean Audit, said U.S. sellers have already taken steps to import penicillin from India and Europe, while Chinese manufacturers are scrambling to resume operations.
U.S. container ports began receiving a small amount of penicillin from China in recent days, but it’ll take about a month for a normal flow of shipments to resume, Ferreira said.
American ports are currently receiving about 7,000 to 8,000 containers of goods imported from China per day, compared with a daily average of about 15,000 in normal times, according to Ocean Audit.
“The supply chain folks that are stuck in China right now are still in their war rooms,” Ferreira said.
What’s more, India, the source of many of the world’s finished drugs, has issued a directive requiring drugmakers to get permission to export 26 different medicines, about two-thirds of which are antibiotics.
That has heightened the risk of shortages in the U.S., Piervincenzi said.
Piervincenzi said India’s decision, in particular, should give the industry sufficient motivation to consider diversifying its base of production. But he said it’s difficult to do so quickly due to drug safety ramifications and regulatory issues.
“That is creating quite a stir,” he said of India’s move.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.