President Donald Trump recently took a monumental step toward permanently plugging gaps in the medical supply chain that became evident during the COVID-19 pandemic. The “Buy American” executive order that he signed will ensure that other nations cannot have the opportunity to deny us life-saving products in a time of need. Medicines and medical supplies such as masks, gloves, goggles and ventilators are essential for the life and well-being of Americans, and we must have a domestic supply of them for the sake of national security.
However, 90 percent of U.S. prescriptions are filled with generic medicines, and the majority of generic ingredients are sourced overseas, especially China and India. According to the Food and Drug Administration’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, 72 percent of manufacturers that supply pharmaceutical ingredients to the USA are located overseas — with 13 percent of them based in China.
In April, China confiscated over 89 million poor-quality face masks and 418,000 pieces of protective gear that were exported across the globe. In North America, alone, Illinois spent $17 million on masks from China that were recalled in other states, Missouri recalled 48,000 masks, and Health Canada issued a recall of KN95 respirators because they “pose a health and safety risk to end users.” It’s like having a bullet-proof vest made of nylon — utterly worthless.
As a physician anesthesiologist, I have placed breathing tubes in too many patients with COVID-19 and attached them to breathing machines, a life-line for them, in hopes that their body can fight off the infection that has ravaged them. I need to know that while trying to save their lives, I will have the right mask that will protect me when I am within inches of their nose and mouth, exposed to billions of invisible viral particles. As a single mother, raising an 8-year old daughter, I cannot jeopardize my safety with shoddy personal protective equipment. Nor can the million-plus frontline workers and first-responders who have been called to care for sick Americans in their time of need.
Complicating matters further, a New York Times investigation found that some Chinese companies are using a controversial government-sponsored program to satisfy demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) that experts say often puts people to work against their will. The program sends Uighurs and other ethnic minorities into factory and service jobs. Their labor is part of the supply chain, and some of the PPE they produce has ended up in the United States and other countries. I shouldn’t have to worry about the risk of wearing a shoddy mask made with slave labor. Why not create jobs for Americans and reduce unemployment while at the same time protecting the frontline workers?
That’s exactly what our president is doing. The “Buy American” rules direct the Department of Health and Human Services to use the Defense Protection Act to procure essential medicines and other equipment from suppliers here in the USA. It also removes some of the regulatory barriers to domestic pharmaceutical manufacturing, giving American producers priority during the regulatory review process.
We need this type of leadership. We need to invest in American companies, like the deal the Trump administration recently announced with Eastman Kodak to manufacture pharmaceuticals. The company will receive a $765 million loan to launch a pharmaceuticals division. The loan is the first of its kind under the Defense Production Act that allows the government to direct private industry to produce weapons, vehicles, and other material for war and emergencies.
As President Trump stated, we must bolster the security of the U.S. health system and bring supplies of drugs “home, where they belong.”