Opinion: U.S. dangerously dependent on Chinese drugs

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.

FILE - This July 6, 2017 file photo shows prescription drugs in a glass flask at the state crime lab in Taylorsville, Utah. Attorneys general from more than 40 states are alleging the nation's largest generic drug manufacturers conspired to artificially inflate and manipulate prices for more than 100 different generic drugs, including treatments for diabetes, cancer, arthritis and other medical conditions. The lawsuit, filed in federal court Friday, May 10, 2019 also names 15 individual senior executives responsible for sales, marketing and pricing. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, File)

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 percent 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 anti-depressants, 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 percent 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. The worst offender was a Chinese manufacturer who knowingly sold pills containing more than 200 times the acceptable limit of a known carcinogen.

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. These are common sense steps that must be taken now to address a growing security threat.

Rosemary Gibson is a senior adviser at the Hastings Center and the author of "China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine."