A top U.S. military official and some members of Congress are raising concerns that the United States is too dependent on pharmaceutical products made in China as the spread of the coronavirus highlights supply chain weaknesses. This issue arose as the U.S. government reported the nation’s first drug shortage related to the outbreak.
“We have got a military medical system, and we have the same access to all the drugs that are available in the commercial system, et cetera,” Joint Chiefs Chairman Mark Milley said at a congressional hearing last week. “You rightly pointed out that it is a vulnerability to have a country such as China manufacturing high percentages — I don’t know if it is 97%, 98% or 80%, whatever it is, but I do know it is high percentages of the ingredients to [the] American pharmaceutical industry across the country, both military and civilian.
“So it is a vulnerability. In a time of armed conflict — if that were ever to happen, hopefully it will never happen — that would obviously be a significant vulnerability to the U.S."
Milley added that the United States needed a national strategy to address the issue.
Responding to the outbreak, which was first reported in Wuhan, China, the government in Beijing has dramatically restricted the movement of people since late January in a bid to control the spread of the disease, officially known as COVID-19. Many assembly lines remain shut and roads closed. These limitations on the flow of goods include critical pharmaceutical products and medical supplies that China exports worldwide.
Illustrating that the coronavirus outbreak in China has weakened the global supply chain, U.S. Commissioner of Food and Drugs Dr. Stephen Hahn said last week in a statement that one drug shortage already had occurred in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration has not disclosed the name of the drug or its manufacturer.
Hahn also said that currently, 20 drugs come only from China. The FDA considers them to be noncritical drugs.
It is estimated that more than 90% of active ingredients in antibiotics in the U.S. market are sourced in China. "There is a lot of reliance on China for antibiotics, and I worry about it for sure," former FDA compliance executive Steven Lynn told CBS News. "The worst-case scenario is China starts shutting down all its ports. That means no more air traffic, boats or trains are going out, and raw material can't get out of the country."
Vulnerable situation for military
Representative Vicky Hartzler, a Missouri Republican who is a member of the House Armed Services Committee, told VOA Mandarin that the U.S. military, like the rest of the country, depends on China for many essential medicines, putting the military in a vulnerable situation amid ongoing tension with the Chinese People's Liberation Army, or PLA.
“Most of the United States military receives their vaccines, their antibiotics and their medicines from either China directly or through companies here in America that receive their base components of the medicine from China,” said Hartzler, whose district includes Fort Leonard Wood, a U.S. Army training station, and Whiteman Air Force Base.
“If we were to go into a conflict with China,” she said, “it raises the question if this is something perhaps China could use against us — to either withhold the needed medicines, vaccines, or to potentially put inert ingredients in them or just to put something harmful in them.”
The current National Defense Strategy says the United States is engaged in a great-power competition with China and Russia, and Secretary of Defense Mark Esper often names China as the United States' main long-term competitor. The U.S. and China are the world's biggest economies.
Hartzler said the Pentagon can play a leading role, noting that she and California Democrat John Garamendi have sponsored legislation that would require the Department of Defense to review its vulnerability. The Pharmaceutical Independent Long-Term Readiness Reform Act
was introduced in October 2019 and requires the Pentagon to support U.S. pharmaceutical manufacturers.
Hartzler and other lawmakers say they hope the heightened attention to the pharmaceutical supply chain triggered by COVID-19 will generate support for the bill and address what they argue is a key vulnerability, not only for the military but also for the nation as a whole.