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Pharmacy with some shelves bare

Store Shelves are Empty, But What About the Shelves at Your Pharmacy?

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By Robert Safir

We all know that the grocery store shelves that should hold toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and food, are more empty than full - but what about pharmacy shelves? Is there any danger that we can run out of prescription drugs?

Some of our prescriptions that we use every day come from China or depend on some ingredients that are manufactured there. Because of the coronavirus outbreak, manufacturing has been disrupted and temporarily closed some factories. Now, because conditions are improving there, supplies are starting to ramp up. But this still may cause some worry about shortages in the United States.

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Drug Shortages are not that Unusual

One single pill in a pack
Gettyimages | Gooddenka

There are several unknown factors that make it difficult to predict if there will be drug shortages. A lot of it depends on how long the virus spread continues and whether or not other countries that can pitch in, such as India, will be able to do so down the line.

Whether there is a coronavirus outbreak or not, drug shortages have been a concern in the United States for some time. Other emergencies can upset the flow as well, such as a natural disaster or a trade war.

As a matter of fact, a drug manufacturer did alert the FDA (Food and Drug Administration) of a drug shortage that was tied to the coronavirus epidemic in China.

Drug shortages are not that unusual in the United States, but the coronavirus could add another possible layer to the capability or getting the right drugs across the board.

Active vs. Inactive Ingredients

Woman examining drug labels
Gettyimages | Images By Tang Ming Tung

You may have noticed when you look at the small print on your prescription bottle or the directions that came with it, that it lists both active and inactive ingredients. But the pill itself (inactive ingredient) and whatever constitutes the finished product might be from India or even the United States.

The amount of pharmaceutical products made in China has increased because just like other products, you can produce them in China more inexpensively. That makes us more dependent on China for our pharmaceuticals and puts more stress on the system – the supply chain – when there is an epidemic, let alone, a pandemic.

What's in That Pill, Anyway?

Stamp saying "FDA Approved"
Gettyimages | Olivier Le Moal

If there is a drug facing a shortage because of the coronavirus pandemic, we don’t really know what that drug is. Because of “confidential commercial information,” FDA Commissioner Steven Hahn said that he could not name that product publicly. If you rely on that drug, you won’t even know if that’s something you should be worried about.

As a consumer, it’s pretty hard to know if the medication you’ve been prescribed depends on ingredients from China or some other country.

Are Drug Shortages Possible?

Diagram of global supply chain
Gettyimages | Sompong Rattanakunchon

If the coronavirus keeps spreading, and appears as if it will, major drug companies in China and in India can potentially cause shortfalls in America. With most products, you simply change your supply chain. But with pharmaceuticals, that’s a lot more difficult.

Drugs coming into the United States have to go through an approval process, especially through the FDA, and that can slow the process down. But these companies do have backups in place. Some may even stockpile additional inventory. So, even in the days of the coronavirus pandemic, we may never actually experience a shortage.

Watch Those Shelves

Well stocked pharmacy shelves
Gettyimages | vm

Adding to the uncertainty, however, is the fact that we don’t know right now which drug is going to be effective in the battle against COVID-19. There are recent rumors around hydroxychloroquine being an effective drug, but it has to go through clinical trials, and that takes time.

So keep your eyes on the grocery shelves – but don’t forget to watch the pharmacy shelves as well. We are dependent on a global network of pharmaceutical manufacturers to keep them well stocked.

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