How COVID-19 Is Affecting the U.S. Pharmaceutical Supply

The COVID-19 (coronavirus) outbreak is expected to cause shortages of prescription drugs and other supplies in the U.S. as a result of shipping delays and shutdowns in China, where the majority of active ingredients are produced.

Recently, NPR spoke with nine pharmaceutical and medical supply companies that have operations in China about how the pandemic has affected their work. While many facilities, especially those far from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan, are already back online, they acknowledge that supply chain disruptions likely aren’t over for good.

“A lot of our suppliers still are not answering phones because they can’t get to work or their site isn’t open,” says Elut Hsu, President of Asymchem, a contract manufacturer that provides ingredients for oncology drugs, antibiotics, and antivirals. Its Chinese facilities were able to reopen on February 10. “We always stock up enough for at least a month. So we’re OK for now. But the secondary wave of supply issues could be coming.”

Gary Ye of Tianyu Pharmaceuticals also noted that, while no one at his company has been diagnosed with COVID-19, “[the outbreak] had some impact to our business, we had to explain to clients we could not meet some deadlines in some cases.” For drug manufacturers, it’s quite difficult to speed up, the only thing we can do is to make the most of our production capacity,” he wrote in an email.

Manufacturers report being required to wear masks to work, eat meals alone, avoid meetings, and have their temperatures taken at least once a day. However, travel restrictions preventing manufacturing materials from crossing borders have been lifted, and the spread of the virus in China has slowed dramatically.

In the U.S., the coronavirus outbreak has already placed significant strain on the Strategic National Stockpile, the federal government’s $7 billion stash of emergency supplies, including medical equipment, masks, and medications. This network is spread across 12 warehouse locations in the U.S. and, should the crisis worsen, is prepared to quickly supply oral and intravenous antibiotics and other equipment. So far, hospitals have only found surgical masks and respirators to be in short supply.

“They have gloves, they have masks, they have medicines, they have scales to weigh ingredients,” said Tommy Thompson, former Wisconsin governor and Health Secretary during the George W. Bush administration. “They have a full supply of things to fight infectious diseases and viruses like we’re experiencing now.”

Sources: NPR, March 12, 2020; STAT, March 10, 2020.