Free Trade

The Panic About China Cutting Off America's COVID-19 Drug Supply Was Fake News

The Food and Drug Administration now says there is no evidence that any country attempted to cut off America's essential pharmaceuticals.


An official from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told Congress on Tuesday that the COVID-19 pandemic did not cause any countries to curtail shipments of pharmaceutical drugs to the United States—a bit of information that should serve to quell the nationalist panic over America's health care supply chains.

"I'm not aware of any case where a country carried through on the threat to withhold medicines," Douglas Throckmorton, the FDA's deputy director for regulatory programs, told the Senate Finance Committee. Throckmorton said there was a "variety of factors that drove spot-shortages that were very serious" including a sudden surge in demand for drugs and domestic distribution issues.

Throckmorton was responding to a question from Sen. Pat Toomey (R–Pa.) who pressed him to explain why some pharmacies and hospitals in the U.S. experienced shortages of certain drugs in the early stages of the COVID-19 outbreak. Toomey stressed that "the American public has an understandable concern" in knowing whether the country's life-saving drug supply is dependant on foreign countries—including potentially adversarial countries like China.

Even before the coronavirus pandemic hit, those fears were being stoked for political and financial purposes. In December, for example, Politico article highlighted how China could "weaponize" its drug exports to America. "Medicines can be used as a weapon of war against the United States," warned Rosemary Gibson, a senior fellow at the Hastings Center and the author of a recent book about China's supposed stranglehold on America's drug supplies.

Gibson happens to moonlight as a board member for a small, Virginia-based pharmaceutical company that last month became the recipient of a $350 million federal grant to manufacture drugs in the United States—even though the company has no experience mass-producing pharmaceuticals and was founded just months ago.

Nationalists in politics and the media have seized on the narrative of China controlling America's drug supply since the pandemic hit. Sen. Josh Hawley (R–Mo.) has held hearings (including one where Gibson testified) and proposed legislation in response to what he called America's "unacceptable" dependence on China. National Review editor Rich Lowry has written that "the U.S. should create every incentive for drug companies to at least move out of China into other foreign countries, and ideally come back here"—in other words, hand out huge subsidies to wealthy corporations—to make sure America isn't cut-off from vital supplies in the event of another pandemic in the future.

Much of this fear was based on misleading statistics—like an oft-repeated claim that 80 percent of the ingredients used to make America's medicines come from China. That number was based on a misreading of a government report that actually said no such thing. The rest of the drug-supply alarmism coming from the right appears to have been invented out of whole cloth. At the height of the pandemic's disruption of Chinese manufacturing facilities in mid-February, the FDA checked with the producers of more than 180 imported drugs to assess the state of their supply chains. They found a potential shortage of exactly one drug.

Part of the reason why pharmaceutical supply chains were able to weather the coronavirus is that they are far more diverse and robust than Hawley and others would have you believe. While it is true that the majority of drugs Americans consume are imported, just 13 percent of the facilities certified by the FDA to make drugs for the United States are located in China. Last year, less than 1 percent of the finished drugs imported into the United States came from China—compared to 23 percent from Ireland.

And, as Throckmorton explained on Tuesday, where drugs are made matters less than whether they can get here when they are needed.

"It's more important for me, as a U.S. federal drug official," Throckmorton told the committee, "to make sure the drug is available from somewhere to meet the needs of the American public."

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  1. That is your beat right Boehm? Fake news. I’ll give you credit, you’re probably the best one Reason has making it at the moment.

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  2. During the whole COVID panic, many of my friends of the “Git off my lawn!” variety were crowing about how shortages were clear proof that Just in Time Supply Chains were a foolish experiment. As if manufacturers sitting on tons of raw materials that they couldn’t build (because lockdown) would have improved things. And of course, we never had shortages back in the 80s.

    Having come through this, it is simply amazing that this country took a 30% haircut to its output, had supply chains disrupted worldwide and not a single fucking person starved to death. I get that there are problems with China being such a dependency. However this has shown us that a robust economy can adapt to bad actors and that the last thing we should do is hand over planning of supply chains to “experts”.

    1. So your argument about not needing buffer inventory at JIT hubs was proven by have excess capacity and buffer inventory in the food hubs.

      That about right?

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  3. Throckmorten. Nothing to do with content here.

    This guy must know the joke. A negative or positive Throckmorten Sign.

    It was a joke you played with the medical student or new resident looking at a pelvis x ray.

    There was a lesson in the joke. Stop looking at the penis. Look at the bones and joint spaces. Pelvic injuries are not a simple subject and easy to miss.

    1. So Echospinner….which way was the penis turning wrt trade? 🙂

      1. Positive Throckmorten or negative?

  4. And what about PPE Boehm? Didnt fit the narrative?

  5. I think a substantial part of the concern about China cutting off medical supplies was related to China explicitly threatening to cut off medical supplies. The two things just might be related.

    1. Yes, and the quote in the article bears that out making the headline clickbait.

      “I’m not aware of any case where a country carried through on the threat to withhold medicines,” Douglas Throckmorton, the FDA’s deputy director for regulatory programs, told the Senate Finance Committee.

      So, ironically this ‘blog post’ is itself fake news.

  6. Hmm, now do your panic over Trump’s “threats.”

    I can see why you’re so upset over the washing machine tariffs given how much pant shitting has been happening around here.

  7. Based on the article above, I’m not seeing a valid call of “fake news”. Based on the quotes here, the people expressing concern said China could weaponize the medical supply chain. Based on the later quotes above, China did not weaponize the medical supply chain. The fact that they did not in this particular circumstance says little about the risk that they could. The risks may have been overblown but they were not “fake news”.

    1. They didn’t carry out their literal threat to do what they said they would do, therefore the threat itself was fake news.

      That’s basically the logic we’re being asked to swallow.

  8. That number was based on a misreading of a government report that actually said no such thing electrician santa monica

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