Tornado damage to the Pfizer facility may exacerbate drug shortages

Albert Bourla, CEO of Pfizer. Lintao Zhang/Getty Images

Hospital drug buyers are trying to figure out how tornado damage at a major Pfizer manufacturing facility will affect drug availability across the country at a time of record drug shortages.

Healthcare providers Premier Inc. and Vizient Inc. said they are working with other drugmakers to see who can ramp up production. Vizient is encouraging drug distributors to manage their inventory carefully. Before a tornado hit Pfizer’s Rocky Mount, North Carolina plant on Wednesday, hundreds of medicines were already in short supply across the country, including cancer drugs, antibiotics and ADHD treatments.

The extent of the damage to the Pfizer plant is unclear and the US government is working with the pharmaceutical giant to assess the situation. U.S. Food and Drug Administration commissioner Robert Califf spoke Thursday afternoon with Pfizer Chief Executive Albert Bourla to understand the extent of the damage and the potential impact on the drug supply, Califfsaid on Twitter. She didn’t elaborate.

The FDA has also been in contact with other drugmakers to see how they can help, said Soumi Saha, senior vice president for government affairs at Premiers. Agency staff have been on site, assessing the damage, said Mittal Sutaria, senior vice president of pharmacy contract and program services at Vizients.

A White House spokesman said the FDA is closely monitoring the situation as it evolves and is working with the company to understand the extent of the damage and any potential impact on the nation’s drug supply.

Drugs IV

Pfizer’s North Carolina plant produces injectable drugs such as anesthetics, pain relievers, and anti-infective medicines for US hospitals. It also sends drugs to other countries, shipping more than 200 million units a year, according to the company’s website. The plant produces nearly 25 percent of Pfizer’s sterile injectables for the United States. These types of drugs are often given intravenously and are known as IV drugs.

Pfizer said it is evaluating the situation to determine the impact on manufacturing, without offering further information. No employees were injured.

It is not publicly known which drugs Pfizer manufactures at the facility. Neither Pfizer nor the FDA provided a list when asked. Pharmaceutical companies are not required to publicly disclose which exact drugs they produce at a given facility, making it difficult for hospitals or other medical providers to assess the impact of production disruptions.

Pfizer is the largest maker of injectable generic drugs for the United States, according to IQVIA, which tracks sales data. Pfizer products accounted for 19% of the country’s supply for the first five months of this year. Fresenius SE, headquartered in Germany, and Hikma Pharmaceuticals Plc, headquartered in London, are the second and third largest suppliers, respectively.

The disaster struck as the United States was facing an up to 9-year drug shortage: 309 medicines are in short supply, including 177 sterile injectables, according to Erin Fox, who runs the University of Utah’s drug information service.

Lack of transparency

Experts were concerned about how the damage to Pfizer’s plant could affect the availability of medicines, but said it’s too early to know given the uncertainty about the damage and what products are manufactured at the facility.

This is exactly why we need more transparency about where our pharmaceuticals are made, said Stephen Schondelmeyer, a professor at the University of Minnesota who studies the pharmaceutical industry.

Basic medicines, including cancer drugs, antibiotics and ADHD treatments, have run out of stock in US pharmacies and hospitals over the past year, endangering lives. Lawmakers and the White House are concerned, but have not enacted any policy changes recently.

Natural disasters have caused drug shortages in the past. When Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, it cut power to factories that make bags of saline, causing widespread problems for hospitals.

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