The coronavirus outbreak that originated in Wuhan, China, is causing businesses, health officials and patients to worry about potential shortages of prescription drugs.
That’s because the vast majority of active ingredients in medicines dispensed in the U.S. are made in factories overseas, many in China.
NPR has exclusive reporting on how disruptions in China are affecting some drugmakers’ ability to make key ingredients. On March 3, we emailed facilities registered with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to ask what products they manufacture, how the outbreak was affecting their work and how they were coping.
Since then, nine companies with operations in China spoke directly to NPR. The facilities make a wide range of pharmaceuticals and some also make other health-related products, including nasal strips and agricultural insecticides.
So far, the serious supply disruptions many have feared haven’t come to pass. Many facilities are back online after production interruptions related to the coronavirus response. Others say they were far enough from the epicenter of the outbreak in Wuhan to continue working immediately after the extended Chinese New Year break.
Still, even facilities that are almost back to normal are anticipating a second wave of setbacks.
“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 Morrisville, N.C.-based Asymchem, Inc., which has eight facilities in northeast China that manufacture drugs and drug ingredients. Asymchem is a contract manufacturer whose ingredients go into antibiotics, oncology drugs and antivirals sold by other companies.
Asymchem had replenished ingredients and supplies ahead of the new year holiday.
“We always stock up enough for at least a month,” she says. “So we’re OK for now. But the secondary wave of supply issues could be coming.”
Some projects had no interruptions, and others were delayed about four weeks, she says. That kind of delay usually isn’t enough to prompt a shortage.
Hsu says the extent of the outbreak became apparent to her colleagues in China as they were preparing to travel home for Chinese New Year at the end of January. Many employees are from other parts of the country. Some cut their holidays short to return to work on time, but others needed to remain in quarantine.
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