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Experts Concerned Over U.S. Dependence On Foreign Drug Manufacturers

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Experts are now concerned that U.S. dependence on foreign drug manufacturing makes us vulnerable to drug shortages. Key components of most of the medications sold in the U.S. are actually made in other countries, mainly China and India. NPR's pharmaceutical correspondent, Sydney Lupkin, joins us now. Sydney, thanks for being with us.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

SIMON: You've been looking into this situation, manufacturing abroad. Has it always been like this?

LUPKIN: No, it hasn't. There was a ton of drug manufacturing happening in the United States in the 1960s through about the 1980s. That was really the heyday for it. Companies had huge domestic factories that made something called active pharmaceutical ingredients, or APIs. These are the basic components in prescription drugs that make them do things like lower your blood pressure, for example. But over the last few decades, companies in the U.S. have been closing down domestic factories and relocating or outsourcing drug manufacturing to other countries that have tax incentives or cheaper labor and fewer environmental rules. I spoke with John McShane, a former pharmaceutical plant manager who remembers when his old company shut down five factories in the United States in 2005, including the one he used to manage which it demolished.

JOHN MCSHANE: Today, it's generally either green space or asphalt. That's all that's left there.

LUPKIN: It used to make key ingredients for dozens of different drugs. And demolitions like that happened across the country.

SIMON: And what does this mean now for the U.S. during this pandemic?

LUPKIN: Well, there are fears about drug shortages caused by work interruptions. For example, in Wuhan, China, where many factories are located, they had to shut down because of the virus. There are also fears that countries will stop exporting certain ingredients and supplies to the U.S. That's exactly what people like Senator Chris Coons from Delaware are worried about. He said he recently couldn't refill one of his medications and was told it was because the active ingredient came from a part of China that was shut down and not exporting. But he says it could have been worse. He's worried about next time.

CHRIS COONS: If we have another global pandemic that leads the world to closed borders and leads global supply chains to shatter or to break down, we are distinctly vulnerable.

LUPKIN: So he wants to see at least some drug and vaccine manufacturing brought back to the U.S. He thinks it's an important part of national security and safety.

SIMON: But what would it take to do that?

LUPKIN: It will take time, for one thing. At this point, nearly three-quarters of the facilities that make those key drug ingredients are based outside the U.S. John McShane, the former plant manager I spoke with, told me he thinks it's going to take 10 or 20 years to get back to having just half of all drugs made in the United States. And experts I've been talking to say it will take government incentives to persuade these companies to start building those huge facilities here again.

SIMON: Are there the incentives to do that given the fact that the pandemic is happening as we speak?

LUPKIN: The coronavirus response bill called the CARES Act includes $3.5 billion for an HHS office designed to prepare for pandemics. It's called BARDA, or the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. It's been around since 2006 to support experimental product research and development to prepare for things like bioterrorism, emerging diseases and nuclear threats. To combat COVID-19, BARDA is going to help two companies, Johnson & Johnson and Moderna, to develop their experimental coronavirus vaccines. It will also help Johnson & Johnson to scale up manufacturing to make up to 300 million doses of those vaccines in the U.S. annually. And more grants and partnerships are coming.

SIMON: NPR's Sydney Lupkin, thanks so much for being with us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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