Many of the things we think are important turn out to be mere distractions. Computer games, political pundits and social media are not essential for our well-being.
When gasoline was in short supply in parts of the country, many people panicked. Lines at gas stations were long and unruly. The country may soon experience a different kind of shortage, and the implications are equally distressing.
Most of our medications are now manufactured abroad. Because the majority of dispensed prescriptions are generic drugs, we are heavily dependent upon foreign supply chains. The COVID pandemic is impacting manufacturing and shipping of such medicines.
China supplies India with a majority of the key chemicals needed to make medications. These active pharmaceutical ingredients are often shipped to India by air cargo. Once in India they are formulated into finished drug products.
The United States is highly dependent upon India for essential medicines. Hospitals cannot function without key drugs made there. Many generic products dispensed from pharmacies around the country come from Indian companies such as Glenmark, Macleods, Sun Pharma, Torrent and Wockhardt.
A report by investigative journalist Anna Edney for Bloomberg (May 5, 2021) reveals that the China-India connection appears to be in trouble:
“Drugmakers in India are warning that a halt on some cargo flights from China could imperil an important link in the global pharmaceutical supply chain.” India has been experiencing a tremendous surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.
The acting Food and Drug Administration commissioner, Dr. Janet Woodcock, told Ms. Edney: “It’s a dynamic situation. We’re going to work closely with manufacturers there. We are concerned in several ways: Will they be able to keep up production and continue to manage quality?”
We agree with Dr. Woodcock that quality is an ongoing concern for drugs made overseas. The FDA halted inspections of foreign manufacturing facilities shortly after the pandemic began. In practical terms, that means that many of the drugs in our medicine cabinets have come from plants that have had limited or no FDA oversight.
Even in the best of times, the FDA has difficulty monitoring foreign drugmakers. The General Accountability Office recently reported that: “GAO has had long-standing concerns about FDA’s ability to oversee the increasingly global pharmaceutical supply chain, an issue on our High Risk List since 2009.”
What would be the impact if essential medicines were no longer available? People who need heart medications, asthma inhalers, critical antibiotics or diabetes drugs might sicken or even die without access to their normal supply.
No one in this country has responsibility for drug shortages. The FDA offers lists of drugs in short supply, but it has no authority to solve the problem. Neither do the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or other health agencies. As a result, no one knows what to do to address these dangerous drug shortages.
It’s a lot like the weather: Everybody complains about it, but nobody does anything to change it. Maybe it’s time for Congress to consider creating incentives for making medication here in the U.S.
Joe Graedon is a pharmacologist. Teresa Graedon holds a doctorate in medical anthropology and is a nutrition expert. Their syndicated radio show can be heard on public radio. In their column, Joe and Teresa Graedon answer letters from readers. Write to them in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email them via their website: