The coronavirus outbreak that originated in China could put the health of millions of Americans at risk — but not in the way most people imagine. Since China is the world’s leading supplier of the active ingredients used in medications, the epidemic may lead to a massive shortage of prescription drugs, and generic drugs in particular.
This emerging threat sheds light on a much larger problem: America’s precarious generic-drug supply chain has made life-threatening medication shortages into a constant danger. Safeguarding access to critical medicines will require reforms that give drug manufacturers the financial incentive to keep these drugs in good supply.
Drug shortages aren’t anything new for the nation’s health system. But they have grown increasingly common in recent years. In 2019, for instance, a shortage of the childhood cancer drug vincristine jeopardized the care of young patients around the country. And the growing scarcity of the widely-used blood-thinner heparin — which is essential for performing heart surgery — has many hospitals preparing for an emergency.