Prescription for Danger: Risky Chinese Meds

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When you pick up your prescription at the pharmacy, it isn't labeled "made in China," but odds are that's where many of your medications come from.

President Donald Trump is calling on U.S. industries to manufacture here at home instead of outsourcing to China. Drug companies should be the first to respond to Trump's plea. They rely on China for active ingredients that go into antibiotics, heart medicines and other drugs we need to stay alive. That reliance is a threat to national security. And the squalid conditions in many Chinese drug factories pose a health risk to Americans who have to take the drugs made there.

The United States wouldn't outsource the manufacture of fighter planes and tanks to China. That would put our national security in the hands of an adversary. But even U.S. military personnel take medications from China.

If U.S.-China tensions worsen, China could cut off antibiotic exports, throwing our hospitals into turmoil, warns Hastings Center health expert Rosemary Gibson. U.S. factories no longer make generic antibiotics.

The federal U.S.-China Economic and Safety Review Commission warned this summer about the dangers of American reliance on China for life-saving drugs. If the U.S. were attacked with anthrax, China would be a major source for ciprofloxacin, an antibiotic needed to treat victims. "What if China were the anthrax attacker?" Gibson asked.

The commission also cautioned that there are "serious deficiencies in health and safety standards" in Chinese drug factories.

The FDA claims pharmaceutical ingredients from China are safe. Don't believe it. The agency has a long history of failing to oversee foreign drug sources, according to scathing reports from the federal Government Accountability Office. GAO found that the FDA inspects Chinese drug manufacturing plants infrequently at best, and some may never get inspected. In the U.S., pharmaceutical plants are inspected every two years.

During the last 13 months, the FDA has had to announce over 50 recalls of blood pressure medications because the active ingredient valsartan contains jet fuel contaminants estimated to cause cancer in 1 out of every 8,000 pill takers. Who supplies it? China. The FDA's Janet Woodcock advised that it's less risky to take the contaminated pills than to stop taking blood pressure medication altogether. Yikes. Patients shouldn't have to face that choice.

In 2008, heparin, a contaminated blood thinner from China, killed 81 American patients. Heparin is made from the mucous membranes of pig intestines. In China, to begin the process, slaughtered pigs are often cooked in unregulated family workspaces. The FDA initially concluded that the contaminated heparin came from a Chinese factory using unclean storage tanks and risky raw materials. But later, the FDA changed its view, suspecting intentional contamination. Too bad the FDA didn't uncover the contamination before Americans started dying. The agency hadn't inspected the plant. Worse, Chinese authorities responded with only denial and more denial.

Even now, the FDA has only 29 staff members dedicated to inspecting over three thousand foreign manufacturing facilities.

What's the lesson? Beware of putting anything made in China in your mouth.

Here's the ultimate unfairness: Americans pay almost the highest medication prices in the world because they shoulder most of the research and development costs for new drugs. Yet what are they getting? Drugs made with cheap, sometimes contaminated Chinese ingredients.

Meanwhile, on Sunday, the Trump administration slapped tariffs on Chinese-made clothing and shoes, trying to force the Chinese to the bargaining table. The reaction in Washington, D.C.? Politicians are squabbling about how much the tariffs will raise Christmas shopping prices. That's a reasonable concern, but let's not lose sight of the more urgent issue: the riskiness of relying on China to fill our medicine chests.

U.S. trade negotiators should anticipate China playing hardball with America's medical supply chain. Now is the time to preempt that threat. Rather than looking for another cheap foreign manufacturing site, encourage domestic production of the drugs we depend on every day.

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