US wildly dependent on coronavirus-plagued China for basic health-care needs
Federal health bureaucrats deserve an “F” grade for preparedness. Despite years of warnings about America’s over-dependence on China for medicines, masks and other equipment, these officials failed to remedy the situation. Now these same officials tell us we are facing an “unprecedented public-health threat” from coronavirus, also named COVID-19.
Bad enough, if we had the weapons to fight it. But the virus has caught us with our proverbial pants down. “It’s quite shocking to me that we have allowed this to happen,” Sen. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin told the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee last week.
Shocking? It’s government as usual. In the past decade, congressional hearings, special commissions and thousands of pages of reports have documented the danger of relying on China for life-and-death medical supplies. It’s been all talk — and no action.
So China remains the sole supplier of raw materials for most of America’s essential medicines. “What worries me the most is the shortage of antibiotics,” warns former Centers for Disease Control and Prevention chief Julie Gerberding.
Our health system is “precariously dependent on China” for supplies, warns former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb. That includes drugs to treat lung and breast cancer, the active ingredient for Tamiflu to treat influenza, implantable defibrillators for heart patients, and the masks, gloves and gowns health workers need.
Expect our hospitals to experience shortages in the next three months, Gottlieb predicts, whether the coronavirus spreads here or not.
No surprise, China is prioritizing its own country’s needs ahead of America’s medical-supply chain. Many Chinese factories are closed down. Beijing is slashing medical exports and redirecting what is produced for local use.
Even so, masks are in such short supply in China that health workers are mending torn ones with tape. Desperate doctors are appealing online for goggles and other personal protective equipment.
More than 1,700 Chinese healthcare workers have been infected with the virus. The head of the Wuhan hospital at the epicenter of the outbreak, neurosurgeon Liu Zhiming, died Tuesday.
Right now, the United States is in a wait-and-see situation. On Jan. 31, as soon as China leveled with the world about its epidemic, President Trump wisely barred foreigners recently in China from entering America and imposed a 14-day quarantine on returning Americans. But an unknown number of people infected with the virus entered the country before then and may have spread it to others. The extent of that problem will become apparent in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, the public should be demanding answers about the adequacy of the US Strategic National Stockpile.
America maintains a stockpile of medical equipment to meet emergencies. Federal officials refuse to answer whether it’s adequate for a coronavirus epidemic.
But Luciana Borio, until recently director of medical and biodefense preparedness at the National Security Council, warned Congress last week that “we have not sufficiently protected the supply chain of essential medicines and medical equipment.”
Health bureaucrats don’t have to specify which vaccines or antidotes are in the stockpile, but doctors and nurses deserve answers on whether there are enough masks, goggles and gowns to protect them on the front lines.
The United States is shelling out $100 million to the World Health Organization to help fight the coronavirus in China. Ridiculous. China’s got the money to pay for itself. America is more in hock to China than any other foreign creditor. If China needs money, it can cash in some US Treasury bills.
Coronavirus may peter out, but even so, it should be a red flag to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar or his successor to rectify our dependence on China for medical supplies. Trump has called for greater reliance on US manufacturing. From day one, Azar should have pushed incentives for pharmaceutical companies and hospital-supply manufacturers to produce more here.
The United States wouldn’t outsource the manufacture of fighter planes and tanks to China, a military and economic adversary. Depending on China for medical and hospital supplies is just as crazy.
Betsy McCaughey, a former lieutenant governor of New York, is chairwoman of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths.
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