To the editor:
Federal policymakers are considering laws that would force federal agencies to rely solely on medicines made in the United States.
Instinctively, one might take comfort in this mandate — technically, an expansion of “Buy America” rules that date back nearly a century — as it would reduce our reliance on the foreign laboratories that supply American drug companies with the “active pharmaceutical ingredients” they need to manufacture medicine.
But that comfort would be misplaced, as the mandate would delay the deployment of a coronavirus vaccine, create shortages of many critical medicines, and raise drug prices. It doesn’t make any sense.
The coronavirus is ravaging our nation. Public health experts believe we’re still weeks away from the disease peaking — and months away from developing a vaccine and developing effective therapies.
Fortunately, the nation’s leading research scientists are working overtime.
Massachusetts-based Moderna Therapeutics and Pennsylvania-based Inovio Pharmaceuticals already have started human trials on each of their experimental vaccines. And other biopharmaceutical companies, like Gilead Sciences, are working to develop effective coronavirus therapies.
As a physician, this lightning pace is amazing to watch, but hardly surprising. Before I became a member of Congress, I spent a quarter-century in the field of medicine.
I remember how, during my medical school days, treating an ulcer often required removing part of a patient’s stomach.
Then, a few years later, a new drug called Tagamet became available followed by the development of an armamentarium of medical treatments that made risky invasive stomach surgery infrequent. And, all of a sudden, ulcer patients no longer needed those risky, invasive stomach surgeries. They could simply take a pill.
In other words, I’ve seen how medical innovation can save lives, alleviate suffering, accelerate recovery, and even cure patients that, just a generation ago, were untreatable.
However, it was only after I entered government that I began to see this astonishing medical progress not simply as the result of painstaking research, but also as the result of sound public policy.
Intellectual property gives investors the confidence they need to back longshot research projects. Globalized trade gives American drug companies the resources they need to develop medicines quickly and cost-effectively.
Any “Buy American” expansion ignores this second key component of our biomedical ecosystem — and is as fantastical as it is dangerous.
Some people have demands for a series of new manufacturing plants to open within months. Typically, it takes $2 billion and up to a decade to build a new factory. Those plants need qualified pharmaceutical chemists as well, and right now there’s a shortage of those workers in the United States.
The expected executive order is also dangerous, as it would also slow the deployment of a coronavirus vaccine — because once researchers here successfully develop one, they’ll need to source ingredients from overseas to produce it in mass quantity.
Vaccine developers aren’t the only ones who depend on globalized trade. So, the mandate would inevitably create shortages and raise drug prices.
These are the simple realities of today’s supply chain.
Our health care system already is on the bring thanks to a surge in coronavirus patients coupled with a shortage of masks, beds and ventilators. Now is not the time to prevent drug companies from purchasing the ingredients, components and supplies they need, no matter where they come from.
The author is a retired physician and a former congressman from Louisiana.