- - Monday, September 14, 2020

Since before he rode down the escalator in 2015, President Trump has seen manufacturing capacity — thousands of plants across the country operating, with full workforces, to make things — as a strategic asset in its own right. 

He unabashedly pushed for a significant cut in the corporate tax rate and reduced deprecation from five years to one — both to spur U.S. manufacturing. He withdrew the U.S. from trade deals, such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and renegotiated others, such as NAFTA, which is now the USMCA trade deal, to remove rules that incentivized manufacturing outside the U.S. at the expense of U.S. workers.

He has removed 22 regulations for every one added — a huge help to manufacturing. He has taken on China over intellectual property, dumping, spying and other matters — with much of the dispute centering on how the Chinese break the rules to disadvantage our manufacturing sector. 

He had a hard time bringing Americans along at first. No president ever had prioritized the development of manufacturing capacity in this way. Manufacturing was seen as a relic of the post-World War II economy. President Obama taunted that Mr. Trump would need a magic wand to bring back manufacturing jobs. 

They’re not laughing anymore. A pandemic hit, and only then did Americans learn that we were not quite dependent — but not quite not dependent either — on China for many of the drugs we need to treat COVID-19 and other common diseases. 

Suddenly, almost overnight, we have shortages of 124 drugs, according to the Food and Drug Administration. We already have run low on Remdesivir, the new therapeutic developed to treat COVID-19. We also have run short of some painkillers and muscle relaxants, such as cisatracurium, as well as blood thinners and antibiotics used on COVID-19 patients. 

It turns out we still develop far more drugs than any country in the world, but we make only a little over a quarter of the basic ingredients of medicine here. We rely on China for 13% of these ingredients overall, but Chinese production accounts for more than 90% of the raw materials for some vitamins and antibiotics.  

The Chinese are prepared to end sales of these ingredients to the U.S. if the administration moves against Huwei, the telecommunications giant developing 5G technology that American national security experts say will enable Chinese spying on Americans through their phones. 

So it’s either endure shortages of drugs, back down on long-held and prudent trade and geopolitical goals with China, or develop sufficient domestic manufacturing capacity to nullify its threats. Mr. Trump has chosen Option 3.

In May, the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, the arm of the Department of Health and Human Services charged with procuring countermeasures to bioterrorism, pandemics and chemical or biological threats, signed a deal with a Richmond, Virginia-based firm to ramp up production of what the industry calls APIs — active pharmaceutical ingredients — the building blocks of most drugs.  

The firm, the agency and others are developing a list of prioritized ingredients for the firm to produce at a plant it is building in Virginia — with COVID-19-related needs at the top of the list. Their plan is to develop a strategic reserve of these basic ingredients. Critics have said the move could drive up drug costs because of increased labor costs and the costs of realigning supply lines. But the firm and the government say advances in manufacturing technology can make up the difference and more.

In August, the president followed up with an executive order that requires the U.S. agencies that purchase drugs — the Departments of Health and Human Services and Defense and the Veterans Administration – to buy drugs manufactured with American-made ingredients.

Critics raised the same points — price and realignment costs — plus some others. Some are concerned relaxing EPA rules that have hindered U.S. drug manufacturing may lead to low-quality drugs being produced in the U.S. Others say the time and money it takes to change endanger COVID-19 patients waiting on drugs now.  

Still others point out that relying too much on American-made drugs could pose a problem if all U.S. drug manufacturers were somehow rendered unable to operate.

These are all valid concerns to some degree. But the more likely scenario — because it is playing out before our eyes now … is that those with leverage over us when it comes to drug manufacturing pose a threat to our security. 

Which means Mr. Trump was right to prioritize rebuilding the U.S. manufacturing sector. He was right, particularly after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, to prioritize creating a U.S. strategic reserve of key basic ingredients for drugs. 

And he is right to use an executive order to speed along the process.  

• Brian McNicoll, a freelance writer based in Alexandria, Va., is a former senior writer for The Heritage Foundation and former director of communications for the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.

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