- - Thursday, April 30, 2020

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered our daily lives in unimaginable ways, leaving little doubt as to how unprepared we were. Our Achilles’ heel is our reliance on other countries — especially China — for many of our drugs and medical supplies. Now we must take evasive action to protect American patients and health care professionals from the consequences of remaining medically dependent on China. One solution may be right in front of us — or, rather, south of us.

The pandemic has brought to the fore the drug and medical supply shortages surgeons have experienced in operating rooms for years. The United States imports almost half of its personal protective equipment (PPE) from China, Financial Times reports. This includes masks, face shields, disposable gowns, and gloves. Unsurprisingly, these items were no longer available once China realized it was facing an epidemic.

To help meet the shortage, 3M, an American company, committed to President Trump that it would ramp up production of N-95 masks. The problem? These are produced in China by 3M’s partner company. The Chinese Communist Party essentially nationalized production of PPE and stopped the export of this equipment. 

China’s choke hold on our medical supply lines is far worse when it comes to drugs. In the 1990s, 90 percent of the global supply of active ingredients for the world’s prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications and vitamins were produced in the United States, Europe and Japan. Now the leading global supplier of these is China. And other nations manufacturing drugs are dependent on China for the key ingredients that go into making medications. 

How has China done it? Through cheap labor and by glutting the world’s drug supply. The Chinese have systematically driven competitors out of business by flooding the world’s markets with cheap drugs, driving prices down and making it unprofitable to continue production. Now China is the predominant force in the world’s drug market.

America is also to blame. The United States has helped China corner the market on drug ingredients. An ingredient’s Chinese origin may not appear on its label. Finding it out can prove impossible, if a manufacturer closely guards the origin as a trade secret. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has been a party to this secrecy, allowing drug companies to hide where active ingredients are produced. 

These active ingredients sourced from China are in virtually every class of commonly used drugs: Cancer drugs, antibiotics, antidepressants, oral contraceptives and blood pressure medications. China even controls the world’s supply of both aspirin and acetaminophen — the active ingredient in Tylenol, which is found in the majority of ordinary cold medications, in addition to being a go-to over-the-counter pain reliever by itself.

If Americans knew the truth that drug companies hide about the source of their drugs, they would go ballistic. As we should. The risk is not confined to loss of access to Chinese-made drugs. The Chinese-made drugs themselves are unsafe.

The most troubling and dangerous problem of our medical dependence on China involves patient safety, because of substandard quality control in Chinese manufacturing facilities. In her 2018 book, “China Rx,” Rosemary Gibson described the tragedy involving tainted Heparin in 2007–08, which killed dozens of people worldwide. Heparin is a drug essential to preventing blood clots, used in operating rooms and intensive care units.

This story was originally reported in the New England Journal of Medicine and traced to a supplier of the Chinese partner of the Wisconsin-based medical manufacturer Baxter International. The Chinese partner used tainted chondroitin sulfate, a key ingredient that was produced unacceptably using substandard extraction from pigs and contaminated storage tanks.

More recently, generic Valsartan — a blood pressure medication — was recalled because of its contamination with N-nitrosodimethylamine, a human carcinogen. This problem was noted back in 2012 but allowed to continue until 2019. Unfortunately, there are other examples of Chinese maleficence involving dangerous drug ingredients, used because they were cheap substitutes.

Our dangerous dependence on Chinese production of our medical equipment and medications should have been obvious before COVID-19 struck, but the United States has largely ignored it. Now the United States is racing China to produce a coronavirus vaccine. This is a race we must win, for as Ms. Gibson presciently wrote, “if a global public health crisis occurs, China will likely keep its domestically produced medicines at home and stockpile them before sharing with other nations.”

Now is the time to cast off our dependence on Chinese medical manufacturing. The solution is to bring production back to North America. The U.S. is the best place to produce drugs and medical equipment, but another option is Mexico, thanks to the new USMCA — U.S./Mexico/Canada Trade agreement. Mexico is a source of plentiful, cheap labor the United States could leverage to break free from China. Accessing factories and controlling quality should be far easier in Mexico than in China. In exchange for bolstering Mexico’s economy and creating better jobs there, conditions could be placed on Mexico that strengthen the U.S. border. 

It is imperative that we loosen China’s grip on our medical supply lines — immediately. The United States has the power to free our patients from China’s choke hold. We just have to choose to break our addiction to secretive, contaminated medical manufacturing overseen by the Chinese Communist Party.

• Hal Scherz, M.D. (info@d4pcfoundation.org), is the board secretary and a co-founder of Docs 4 Patient Care Foundation. He is president and managing partner at Georgia Urology.

Sign up for Daily Opinion Newsletter

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2021 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide