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Despite Trump’s call, experts say total reshoring of U.S. pharma production is unrealistic

WASHINGTON – The coronavirus pandemic may have exposed the United States’ heavy reliance on other countries for medical supplies, but President Donald Trump’s calls to return production to American soil completely are unrealistic, experts say.

A reshuffle is needed instead, they said Tuesday (May 26) during a briefing by the Washington-based National Press Foundation on medical trade wars.

“We have heard … that Covid-19 may be the end of globalization as we know it, that global chains have not been able to solve these kinds of problems,” said sociologist and director of Duke University’s Global Value Chains Center Gary Gereffi, referring to shortages of medical devices and personal protective equipment.

“I believe that domestic production of these medical devices and personal protective equipment will certainly increase in the coming years,” he said. “But it will not necessarily replace or replace globalization.”

As coronavirus spread in the U.S., demand for N-95 masks rose from the usual 50 million a month – about a fifth of which was used by medical professionals – to 300 million a month, almost all of them for medical use.

Images of doctors and nurses in virus hotspots forced to wear bandanas and trash bags in the absence of masks, gloves and gowns went viral as US companies like 3M and Honeywell wanted to ramp up production in their factories.

On May 14, the Trump administration announced that it would expand the federal supply of masks, gowns and other critical medicines to ensure a 90-day reserve for future events and that they would be manufactured by U.S. companies.

“Do you know what a globalist is? They want the world to do well, but they don’t care about us. Now we want everyone to do well. But we have to take care of America first, ‘said Trump during a visit to a medical supplies distribution center in Pennsylvania.

His order “would help bring vital factories, pharmaceutical producers and especially jobs back home where they belong,” he added.

But the sheer complexity of some medical products means that the U.S. cannot manufacture them all by itself, said Dr. Gereffi. For example, N-95 masks require 70 different parts, only a few of which are made in the US, while fans are made up of about 300 components.

“The US could focus on certain critical components, but realistically it cannot expect the entire supply chain for all of these products to enter the US,” he said.

“We still have to manage these efficiency issues through some form of international agreement, even if we can increase production of some critical products in the US in the short term.”

Nevertheless, Washington was increasingly concerned about the US’s increasing dependence on foreign – especially Chinese – pharmaceuticals, even before the corona virus hit.

In recent decades, drug production has shifted from the US to Asian countries such as China and India, where cheaper labor costs and less stringent environmental regulations apply.

As a result, only 28 percent of the manufacturing facilities that make the raw materials for medicines to supply the U.S. market were in the country in August 2019, according to official testimonials from a Commission hearing for economic and security investigations between the U.S. and China on this issue last year.

“Using materials of foreign origin creates vulnerabilities in the US drug supply system,” said Janet Woodcock, an officer of the Food and Drug Administration, director of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research.

The US could identify the most critical drugs essential to the functioning of the healthcare system and gradually bring them back home, said New York-based bioethics research institute Hastings Center, Rosemary Gibson, senior advisor.

She added, “I don’t think the US has the option of not doing it.”

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