As tension mounts between the world’s two largest economic powers, the United States and China, experts warn that the most populous nation on the globe virtually holds the key to America’s medicine cabinet.
Ninety percent of prescriptions in the U.S. are filled with generic drugs, and China dominates the industry that provides the necessary active pharmaceutical ingredients to drug manufacturers.
“This is an untold story and it has huge implications for our health and security,” Rosemary Gibson, senior advisor at The Hastings Center, told The Epoch Times in a recent interview.
Gibson, co-author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine,” testified on July 31 (pdf) in front of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission about the nation’s growing reliance on China’s biotech and pharmaceutical products.
“If China shut the door on exports of medicines and their key ingredients and raw materials, U.S. hospitals and military hospitals and clinics would cease to function within months, if not days,” she testified.
She says the United States is not alone. Many western European and other countries across the globe are also dependent on China.
Generic drugs made in China and sold in the U.S. include antibiotics, antidepressants, birth control pills, chemotherapy to treat cancer, and medicines to treat high blood pressure, epilepsy, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and AIDS, says Gibson in a Health Watch USA video, “China RX: Is Our Drug Supply Safe?”
As Gibson discusses in her book, the problem began as far back as 1984 when, with the Hatch-Waxman Act and the advent of more affordable prescription drugs, U.S. pharmaceutical companies sought manufacturers that could produce medicines more cheaply.
In 2000, President Bill Clinton and Congress eased trade relations with China after decades of political and military tensions with the U.S.-China Relations Act, helping China join the World Trade Organization. Soon after, U.S. trade with China began to boom, and American businesses increasingly took advantage of lower prices, lower wages, and less regulations in the country.
Through Gibson’s research for “China RX,” she discovered that within four years of opening trade with China, the country was producing penicillin, vitamin C, aspirin, and heparin.
By 2008, contaminated heparin from China was associated with the deaths of at least 81 people in the U.S., according to the Food and Drug Administration.
The U.S. dependence on Chinese-made medicine only got worse during the Obama administration, while China grew bolder in its trade practices, continuing its plan for domination of the generic drug market. Meanwhile, for most American consumers—and large U.S. retailers—cheap Chinese labor meant cheap goods, including medicines.
In 2016, President Donald Trump’s campaign rallies brought renewed attention to China’s trade practices. One of the main planks in Trump’s platform was his promise to hold China accountable on currency manipulation, intellectual property rights, tariffs on American-made goods, and a massive trade imbalance.
China’s stubbornness and Trump’s refusal to back away from his criticisms of China, including its aggressive military expansion in the South China Sea and prolific sales of highly addictive opioids such as fentanyl, have not helped to ease tensions in the current U.S.-China Trade War.
However, Gibson said the many security issues with China are too important to downplay or ignore.
“What I’ve learned from writing China RX is that there is a lot of talk about China and globalism, nationalism, 5G, and steel. But, this medicine issue makes the China issue very real for the average person,” Gibson said. “This is where the security risk is to the entire population. We’re losing control of the supply of our medicine and you would never know that from just watching TV and all the ads. Most people don’t know it. I didn’t know it, and this is the real challenge we face.”
When Gibson testified to the commission in July, she heard a military veteran describe how three of his blood pressure medicines were recalled in three months, because the medication was contaminated with rocket fuel. It was made in India, but the core ingredient came from China.
“These are economically motivated contaminations,” Gibson said.
One of the reasons it’s taken years for Washington to take a closer look at China’s dominance of the generic drug manufacturing market is that no American organizations are lobbying against it, she said.
“There’s no lobby group in Washington area that is advocating, unlike steel, for domestic manufacturing of our generic drugs. And, when there is no industry advocacy, a topic does not reach the high levels that it should,” Gibson said.
However, since the U.S. Senate commission hearing, Gibson is hoping Congress will act.
“I’m hoping that this will rise to the level of executive action. I drafted an executive order for a full government review,” said Gibson, adding that she has selectively shared the proposed legislation with government officials across the political spectrum. “This is and should be a bipartisan issue.”
In her book, Gibson also delivers an action plan. One of her suggestions is to create incentives to develop new manufacturing technology that can produce generic drugs at a much cheaper price—up to 40 percent lower in the U.S.
“The reason companies are not investing in this is because they are under extreme pressure in terms of cost, so they’re not going to invest,” she said.
American reliance on China for generic prescription drugs not only poses health risks, but it has severely eroded the entire industrial base of the U.S. health care industry and the economy in general, Gibson said, triggering significant job losses.
“These are skilled jobs. You have to know how to do this. There’s a huge brain drain and loss of how to make our medicine, how to make antibiotic fermentation plants. We’re losing the know-how,” Gibson said. “Thousands, tens of thousands and probably more pharmaceutical chemists have lost their jobs. That’s what I mean by the whole industrial base—the people, the equipment and the know-how.”
With China also trying to corner the markets of many rare earth minerals and other materials, Gibson said it’s the pharmaceutical industry that could have the largest impact on people’s lives.
“Everybody likes to talk about the consumer goods and the hybrid cars we won’t have without rare earth production and refining, but this is far more profound. It’s life and death.”