While some have speculated about what will happen after this passes, the one area that most interests me is the medical device and healthcare supply chains. It has certainly surprised many to discover just how much of the United States’ important medical supplies are acquired from China, from protective garments to critical components for devices to pharmaceuticals. As China was the epicenter for the outbreak of COVID-19, this virus has brought to light the vulnerabilities of such a situation.
As a result, there’s been attention given to restoring manufacturing within the U.S., primarily seen across social media. Many are calling for a return to “Made in the U.S.A.” for, at the very least, medical supplies currently in such short supply. The messages on Facebook or Twitter aren’t the only sources of the voices speaking up on this, however. There’s been bipartisan support for legislation that would study the current medical equipment supply chain and develop an action plan to potentially address the country’s dependence on foreign-made products.
“The global coronavirus outbreak has heightened awareness around the vulnerability we have when it comes to American reliance on foreign-made medical supplies. When a public health emergency or national security crisis occurs in China or other countries that disproportionately provide us with medical supplies, the United States is at risk of a shortage of drugs or health care equipment. We have to develop a strategy to strengthen domestic production and supplies, and our bill tasks a commission to achieve those solutions,” said U.S. Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL).
In total, 11 U.S. Senators from both sides of the aisle introduced the bill, “Commission on America’s Medical Security.” “We are asking the National Academy of Sciences to look into what exactly the impact is on our country of having medicines and medical supplies made overseas. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that about 13 percent of the facilities that make active ingredients for drugs used by Americans are in China, and the coronavirus outbreak has demonstrated the need to better understand where drugs and devices are made and how they get to consumers,” said Lamar Alexander (R-TN).
At this point, the bill is garnering some attention. It would certainly gain even more if the hints of threats from China regarding the potential to hold back critical healthcare supplies in light of the outbreak were more pronounced. Perhaps that was speculative reporting, internet rumors, or actual statements tied to a lingering trade war. Regardless of the source of the comments, COVID-19 has thrust the medical supply chain situation into the spotlight.
Unfortunately, there were some who were trying to find anyone to listen to this exact concern well before this pandemic even occurred. Look no further than Managing Editor Michael Barbella’s Medtech Musings editorial in the last issue of MPO (bit.ly/mpo200499). He tells how Mike Bowen—whose company Prestige Ameritech produces surgical masks—tried unsuccessfully to warn others of this precarious medical supply issue. Many are listening now, but it’s a little too late for this situation. Will they push ahead to ensure we are prepared for the next challenge?
That’s the real question at this point. Will anything regarding the supply chain actually change? Will Congress pass legislation that essentially limits the options for commercial business? Will they accept the potential for a rise in prices for healthcare-related supplies by requiring it to be manufactured within the U.S.? Is the U.S. truly equipped to support such a shift?
We already have labor shortages for many segments of the manufacturing environment. Wouldn’t bringing medical product manufacturing “in-house” within the U.S. borders exacerbate that situation even more? Can the U.S. actually support a directive requiring more medical supplies to be made domestically?
Further, what happens a few years down the road when COVID-19 is (hopefully) a distant memory? Members of Congress meet with constituents who complain about how they can’t keep up with demand for their products. As a result, laws are adjusted and regulations relaxed to help ensure production is maintained. Critical components are sourced from overseas facilities and we’ve returned to the status quo.
We’ll just have to see how this all plays out, but for now, hoping you all stay safe and healthy during this challenging time.
Sean Fenske, Editor-in-Chief