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Another Voice: U.S. has unhealthy dependence on China for medicines

By Rosemary Gibson

As tensions between the U.S. and China escalate, Washington is waking up to the threat posed by Beijing’s longstanding espionage and cyber hacking. But there’s another looming problem – and one that’s been overlooked for too long: America’s growing dependence on China for prescription drugs.

Right now, millions of Americans are taking medicines made in China – medications sold in big-box and grocery store pharmacies, administered in hospitals, and used by the VA and military facilities around the world. This is different from illegal fentanyl, or the counterfeit drugs sold on the internet.

Over the past 30 years, a lot of drug manufacturing has been offshored. With generics comprising 90% of the medicines Americans consume, there’s now a growing reliance on China for essential drugs. The U.S. no longer makes penicillin, for example, with the last U.S. penicillin plant closing in 2004.

Now, the U.S. has virtually no capacity to make generic antibiotics used to treat ear infections, strep throat, pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases, Lyme disease and other illnesses. And when the U.S. government needed to buy 20 million doses of the antibiotic doxycycline after the 2001 anthrax attacks, it turned to a European supplier that sourced its ingredients from China.

There are other generic drugs made in China and sold here, including antidepressants, birth control pills and chemotherapy medications. China also supplies the U.S. with medications for Alzheimer’s, HIV/AIDS, diabetes, Parkinson’s, epilepsy and other conditions.

China now dominates global production. Even India, with its large generic drug industry, relies on China for 80% of the key ingredients it uses to make generics.

In five to 10 years, the U.S. will have largely lost its capacity to manufacture most generic drugs. And that will leave America almost completely dependent on Chinese companies.

When we lose control of these medicines, we lose control over safety and the prices we pay.

Hundreds of Americans died from tainted supplies of Chinese-made heparin in 2007 and 2008. And more recently, millions of Americans were sold blood pressure medicines that contained a cancer-causing contaminant.

What Washington should do is rapidly assess our vulnerabilities. Medicine should be treated as a strategic asset, like energy supplies and food commodities. Taxpayer dollars spent on medicines for the VA and the military shouldn’t be helping to grow China’s generic drug industry. That money should stay in the U.S., to keep a vital industry afloat.

Rosemary Gibson is a senior adviser at the Hastings Center, a bioethics research institute in Putnam County.

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