As tensions with China have escalated over the past year, Washington, D.C., is finally waking up to the threats posed by Beijing’s longstanding espionage and cyber hacking. And later this month, the congressionally mandated U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission will hold hearings on the impact of U.S. reliance on China’s pharmaceutical products. I’ll be testifying before the commission July 31 to spotlight an overlooked issue: America’s growing dependence on China for prescription drugs.
Right now, millions of Americans are taking medicines made in China — medications sold in big box stores and pharmacies, administered in hospitals, and used by Veterans Affairs and military facilities around the world. This is different from illegal fentanyl or the counterfeit drugs sold on the internet.
Over the past 30 years, much of the U.S. drug manufacturing industry has relocated offshore. With generic drugs comprising 90 percent of the medicines that Americans consume, there’s a growing reliance on China for many essential medications. The U.S. no longer makes penicillin, for example. The last U.S. penicillin plant closed in 2004.
Now, the U.S. has virtually no capacity to make generic antibiotics used to treat ear infections, strep throat, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, Lyme disease and other illnesses. As far back as 2001, when the U.S. government needed to buy 20 million doses of Doxycycline in response to anthrax attacks, it turned to a European supplier that sourced its ingredients from China.
There are other generic drugs made in China, including anti-depressants, birth control pills and chemotherapy medications. China also supplies medicines that treat Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other conditions.
China now dominates global drug production. Even India, with its large generic drug industry, relies on China for 80 percent of the key ingredients it uses to make generics.
In five to 10 years, the U.S. will have largely lost its capacity to manufacture most generic drugs. That will leave the nation almost entirely dependent on Chinese companies.
In 2007 and 2008, hundreds of Americans died from tainted supplies of Chinese-made Heparin. More recently, millions of Americans were sold blood pressure medicines that contained a cancer-causing contaminant. The worst offender was a Chinese manufacturer who knowingly sold pills containing high levels of a carcinogen. To date, there have been problems with three leading blood pressure medications: Valsartan, Losartan and Irbesartan.
What Washington must do is rapidly assess vulnerabilities — and recommend ways to strengthen domestic manufacturing of both generic drugs and their core ingredients.
Right now, the federal government doesn’t know who controls the supply of our medicines. These medications should be treated as a valuable strategic asset — like energy supplies and food commodities.
In the private sector, Civica Rx, a nonprofit consortium of hospitals, is addressing concerns about shortages of lifesaving medicines. The group is buying medicines directly from trustworthy manufacturers, and paying a fair price. One of the first medicines Civica Rx is buying is Vancomycin — a last-resort antibiotic plagued by shortages. The drug will be manufactured in Ohio.
The VA and the military should have the same flexibility to buy medicines based on value. Currently, they buy the cheapest medicines to save taxpayer money. But this has unintended consequences, since it drives more production to China. And it creates a national security risk for men and women in uniform. Tax dollars shouldn’t be helping to grow China’s generic drug industry. Instead, that money should stay in the U. S. to help preserve a vital industry.
Congress needs to invest in advanced manufacturing technology, too. This can produce medicines at a lower cost, with better quality, and with a smaller environmental footprint. It would be a wise investment, since startup funding to demonstrate the feasibility of large-scale production of generic drugs and their ingredients could spur private investment. And that could help to ensure the availability of lifesaving medicines while driving economic growth in communities across the country.
It’s time for Washington to take common-sense steps to address a growing security threat.