One of the biggest national security threats in the U.S.-China trade war could be to the everyday medicines taken by millions of Americans.
The U.S. relies on imported medicines from China in a big way. Antibiotics, over-the-counter pain meds and the stuff that stops itching and swelling — a lot of it is imported from China.
President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping so far have left pharmaceuticals out of the bilateral trade war, including the announcement last week of a mini-deal. While Trump has used national security as a rationale to slap tariffs or trade sanctions on a variety of imports, medical supplies haven’t fallen under such scrutiny.
But the U.S. is woefully unprepared to address even minor disruptions in the supply of these drugs.
“Medicines can be used as a weapon of war against the United States,” Rosemary Gibson, a senior adviser on health care issues at the bioethics-focused Hastings Center and co-author of “China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America’s Dependence on China for Medicine,” told lawmakers last month. “Supplies can be withheld. Medicines can be made with lethal contaminants or sold without any real medicine in them, rendering them ineffective.”
A watchdog report last month by the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission and a recent congressional hearing warn that China hopes of surpassing the United States as the world’s biggest producer of pharmaceutical products.
Last year, China accounted for 95 percent of U.S. imports of ibuprofen, 91 percent of U.S. imports of hydrocortisone, 70 percent of U.S. imports of acetaminophen, 40 to 45 percent of U.S. imports of penicillin and 40 percent of U.S. imports of heparin, according to Commerce Department data.
In a letter to health chiefs last year, Senate Finance Chairman Chuck Grassley cited reports claiming 80 percent of active pharmaceutical ingredients are produced overseas, mostly in China and India.