The U.S. relies on China for electronics, clothes, toys and, increasingly, prescription drugs. About 90% of the active ingredients used by U.S. companies in drug manufacturing come from China, which has prompted politicians and public health experts to express concern over potential shortages of common generics.
To date, manufacturing disruptions caused by the novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, haven’t led to reported shortages in the U.S., but the Food and Drug Administration said it’s closely monitoring the situation.
The FDA said earlier this week it was tracking about 20 drugs that are manufactured primarily in China. Depending on the drug, stockpiles lasting weeks, perhaps months, have been warehoused, according to supply chain experts.
But “it’s an issue now,” said David Jacobson, a professor of practice at Southern Methodist University’s business school. “If China isn’t in a position to turn [drug manufacturing] around … then we don’t have an alternative source from which to source them.”
Michael Wessel, commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, said generic antibiotics and blood pressure meds could be among those first affected.
“We don’t know exactly which products are going to be short,” said Erin Fox, senior policy director of drug information and support services at the University of Utah Health. But, she added, for many Americans, stockpiling a two-week supply, no different from preparing for a long vacation, may be a good idea.
“We don’t want people to panic,” Jacobson said, but “patients might try to position to have a couple months ahead just in case. We do have to recognize that if everybody tried to do that, it would exacerbate the problem, but that’s what I would have my family do.”
Wessel said although “hoarding is something we should avoid,” with most providers, “it’s pretty hard in this day and age to stock up when your insurance company will limit you to a 90-day supply.”
The coronavirus outbreak has highlighted a “substantial and potentially threatening reliance on China with our drug supplies,” Wessel added. “As production in China has been taken offline, the supplies of those products that go into 90% of the generics Americans take are at risk.”
As China’s government continues work to contain the epidemic, it’s also possible drugs or related products previously earmarked for export will be used locally.
“China is going to treat its own people first — any country would do that,” Wessel said. “We shouldn’t blame them for that. But because we are so dependent on them for those, the question is going to be whether there is going to be treatments available for citizens across the globe.”
As coronavirus diagnoses wane, and as more factories in China reopen, potential risks to supply chains also should decline, experts told ABC News.
“I think we’ll have a much better idea in eight to 12 weeks,” Fox said. “I think it’s important not to panic, but I think it’s a good idea to have a couple of weeks on hand of chronic medications. That’s never a bad idea.”