Manufactured patriotism

Sept. 28, 2020
The government wants to reshore generics, but the drug industry isn’t celebrating

I was recently involved in a debate amongst friends over whether or not Labor Day should be considered a “patriotic” holiday.

Labor Day honors the American labor movement and pays tribute to the contributions and achievements of American workers. Stemming from the Industrial Revolution, the labor movement and subsequent rise of unions created a way for common workers to achieve collective bargaining power. These early factory workers not only played a key role in transforming our country into an industrialized nation, but through protests, strikes and negotiations, their unions fought for shorter work weeks, safer working environments, health benefits and an end to child labor.

But deciding what falls within the definition of patriotism may simply come down to individual opinion.

Consider the push to “buy American.” While the concept dates back to President Hoover and has been applied to many segments of manufacturing throughout history, the Trump administration’s recent executive order targets the drug industry specifically, ordering federal agencies to purchase (FDA-deemed) essential drugs and medical supplies from U.S. factories.

In many ways, this was a long-time coming. Pre-COVID, drug ingredients from China had triggered several prominent recalls, calling into question the safety of drugs made with foreign ingredients. The emergence of a pandemic out of China brought about supply shortages in the U.S., and with that came revelations about the vulnerability of the U.S. supply chain and a growing anti-China sentiment among lawmakers.

On the surface, focusing on the resiliency of American drug supply chains was warranted. The executive order aims to reduce U.S. overdependence on foreign nations and attempts to guard against shortages of critical supplies.

But the plan lacks specifics and perhaps more importantly, universal buy-in from the pharma industry. As the industry knows all too well, the economics of making generic ingredients and finished products are not on America’s side. The high costs of labor, adhering to environmental standards and keeping up with FDA regulations are often cited as major obstacles to reshoring.

And yet some companies — like the one that nabbed one of the largest BARDA contracts in history — say reshoring is feasible. Phlow, a Virginia-based startup, plans to use its BARDA bucks to utilize automated continuous manufacturing methods to produce APIs. The company also says it has been tweaking the process to make it more efficient and environmentally friendly.

Still, not everyone in the industry is convinced, and the overarching concern is that moving production to the U.S. will eliminate redundancies and actually increase supply chain risks — and may end up driving up the cost of drugs.

Circling back to the discussion of patriotism, this situation begs the question: Is patriotism the act of using U.S. labor to produce drugs on U.S. soil or is it making sure that all Americans have access to the highest quality, affordable drugs?

Perhaps real victory will come in figuring out how to do both. Rather than one-off grandiose measures, the government can help build a foundation for a long-term plan to make reshoring more attractive to companies. Meanwhile, the industry can more rigorously vet its international supply chain partners.

With the government as a financial partner, the pharma industry can find a balance that best benefits American patients — and that’s something worth celebrating with fireworks and flag waving. 

About the Author

Karen P. Langhauser | Chief Content Director, Pharma Manufacturing

Karen currently serves as Pharma Manufacturing's chief content director.

Now having dedicated her entire career to b2b journalism, Karen got her start writing for Food Manufacturing magazine. She made the decision to trade food for drugs in 2013, when she joined Putman Media as the digital content manager for Pharma Manufacturing, later taking the helm on the brand in 2016.

As an award-winning journalist with 20+ years experience writing in the manufacturing space, Karen passionately believes that b2b content does not have to suck. As the content director, her ongoing mission has been to keep Pharma Manufacturing's editorial look, tone and content fresh and accessible.

Karen graduated with honors from Bucknell University, where she majored in English and played Division 1 softball for the Bison. Happily living in NJ's famed Asbury Park, Karen is a retired Garden State Rollergirl, known to the roller derby community as the 'Predator-in-Chief.'