In March, the spread of COVID-19 was beginning to ramp up in the United States and it became evident how much the country relies on Chinese manufacturers for medical supplies like tests and personal protective equipment (PPE) vital to protecting health care workers from contracting and spreading the virus, the Washington Post reported. Countries from which we source our supplies were also working to contain the coronavirus in their own backyards, with everyone fighting to get what they needed from a limited pool.
Crippled supply chains were leaving hospitals and nursing homes in the U.S. grappling for tests and PPE, hampering state and federal responses to the pandemic. The U.S. quickly emerged — and remains — as the country with the most infections and deaths above any other by far. President Trump’s answer is to require government agencies to prioritize buying supplies for medicines deemed “essential” from U.S. manufacturers rather than ones from China or other countries.
While this order sounds good in theory, some worry that forcing agencies to break off relationships with traditional suppliers overseas will leave the U.S. scrambling to fill the gap, actually making the situation worse, at least in the short term. The U.S imports 80% of its active pharmaceutical ingredients — primarily from Canada and China. Additionally, a large portion of the total generic drugs used by the U.S. are imported from China or India — which also sources many of the active ingredients to produce these drugs from China. Seventy-eight percent of medical devices used in the U.S. also are imported from China.
In order to address shortage concerns, U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar told Bloomberg Radio that the executive order would likely include provisions to “fund and incentivize domestic manufacturing” for prescription drugs and PPE. He reasoned, “The coronavirus pandemic brought home that core elements of our medical supply chain are just as strategic to our national security as, say, nuclear submarines and aircraft carriers are, and have to be treated with that same kind of approach.”
Some companies already stepped up early in the pandemic to cease usual operations and pivot to manufacturing supplies like masks and ventilators. But are these companies and others like them prepared to supply the entire nation? What about drugs and medical devices? Are active ingredients and necessary technology readily available to quickly ramp up production?
Whatever the answers, they must come quickly. Even now, seven months since the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in the United States, health care workers are looking at another wave of possible shortages of protective medical equipment as regions of the country, particularly the South, are reporting surges of new COVID-19 cases.