An official from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told Congress on Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause any countries to curtail shipments of pharmaceutical drugs to the United States—a bit of information that should serve to quell the nationalist panic over America’s health care supply chains.
“I’m not aware of any case where a country carried through on the threat to withhold medicines,” Douglas Throckmorton, the FDA’s deputy director for regulatory programs, told the Senate Finance Committee. Throckmorton said there was a “variety of factors that drove spot-shortages that were very serious” including a sudden surge in demand for drugs and domestic distribution issues.
Throckmorton was responding to a question from Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Pa.) who pressed him to explain why some pharmacies and hospitals in the U.S. experienced shortages of certain drugs in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Toomey stressed that “the American public has an understandable concern” in knowing whether the country’s life-saving drug supply is dependant on foreign countries—including potentially adversarial countries like China.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, those fears were being stoked for political and financial purposes. In December, for example, a Politico article highlighted how China could “weaponize” its drug exports to America. “Medicines can be used as a weapon of war against the United States,” warned Rosemary Gibson, a senior fellow at the Hastings Center and the author of a recent book about China’s supposed stranglehold on America’s drug supplies.
Gibson happens to moonlight as a board member for a small, Virginia-based pharmaceutical company that last month became the recipient of a $350 million federal grant to manufacture drugs in the United States—even though the company has no experience mass-producing pharmaceuticals and was founded just months ago.
Nationalists in politics and the media have seized on the narrative of China controlling America’s drug supply since the pandemic hit. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) has held hearings (including one where Gibson testified) and proposed legislation in response to what he called America’s “unacceptable” dependence on China. National Review editor Rich Lowry has written that “the U.S. should create every incentive for drug companies to at least move out of China into other foreign countries, and ideally come back here”—in other words, hand out huge subsidies to wealthy corporations—to make sure America isn’t cut-off from vital supplies in the event of another pandemic in the future.
Much of this fear was based on misleading statistics—like an oft-repeated claim that 80 percent of the ingredients used to make America’s medicines come from China. That number was based on a misreading of a government report that actually said no such thing. The rest of the drug-supply alarmism coming from the right appears to have been invented out of whole cloth. At the height of the pandemic’s disruption of Chinese manufacturing facilities in mid-February, the FDA checked with the producers of more than 180 imported drugs to assess the state of their supply chains. They found a potential shortage of exactly one drug.
Part of the reason why pharmaceutical supply chains were able to weather the coronavirus is that they are far more diverse and robust than Hawley and others would have you believe. While it is true that the majority of drugs Americans consume are imported, just 13 percent of the facilities certified by the FDA to make drugs for the United States are located in China. Last year, less than 1 percent of the finished drugs imported into the United States came from China—compared to 23 percent from Ireland.
And, as Throckmorton explained on Tuesday, where drugs are made matters less than whether they can get here when they are needed.
“It’s more important for me, as a U.S. federal drug official,” Throckmorton told the committee, “to make sure the drug is available from somewhere to meet the needs of the American public.”