COVID-19 pandemic strains US's prescription drug supply chain

Posted at 2:34 PM, Nov 30, 2020

A surge in COVID-19 cases is further straining the already-depleted supply of prescription drugs in the U.S., according to researchers and doctors at the University of Minnesota.

"The supply lines are really stressed and stretched," said Dr. Stephen Schondelmeyer, a co-principal investigator for the Resilient Drug Supply Project at the University of Minnesota.

Schondelmeyer's work focuses on critical drugs and their supply chains. He tracks the supply chain process for every drug on the marketplace — more than 100,000 in total.

Most of the prescription drugs used by Americans are made outside of the country — meaning the U.S. is reliant on foreign companies to manufacture the drug and shipping companies to deliver them safely.

"We're identifying where it comes from — the first thing you need to know is about 70% of all the drugs that come into the U.S. marketplace are made outside of the US.," Schondelmeyer said.

He and his team want to predict and identify when and where there will be failures in the system. Right now, the U.S. has a "fail and fix" system — and right now, there are some critical breakdowns in the supply chain.

"Seventy-five percent of the COVID-19 drugs are currently in shortage," Schondelmeyer said. "That means three-fourths of the drugs we're using for COVID-19 were already in shortage, and that's before we had this last surge we're seeing."

"We should, as a matter of national policy, have a map like we're building of the global drug supply from the beginning all the way until the drug reaches the patient," Schondelmeyer said.

But it's not just COVID-19 drugs that are in short supply. Dr. Beth Thielen, an assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota Medical School and an infectious disease physician, says even some routine drugs are hard to come by.

"As a physician working in the hospital — the University of Minnesota — we're a big urban center and yet we're regularly dealing with this issue of shortages in routine things like antibiotics," Thielen said. "It's very concerning to think about the supply chain breaking down and seeing drugs not available in pharmacies or the hospital."

Doctors say COVID-19 has unmasked a problem that's been a concern for decades. The pharmaceutical supply chain is complicated and dependent on other countries — and there are supply and demand dilemmas.

"Start the conversation now with your healthcare provider," Thielen said. "There might be some within class substitutions of medicines, so a drug that is related may not be the exact same drug but might fulfill the same purpose."

Schondelmeyer adds that anyone with a regular prescription should ask their doctor about getting a 90-day supply of essential drugs — but adds that there's no reason to hoard medication.

"We shouldn't panic. We shouldn't treat drugs like we did toilet paper and stock up on so much that we're totally out — and that's an example of what can happen when there's rumors of shortages," Schondelmeyer said. "People act out of fear, and they hoard more than they really need."

In the meantime, Schondelmeyer is pushing for a national stockpile of critical medications, so that the U.S. is covered should there be a complete breakdown in the supply chain.