Coronavirus reveals the vulnerable nature of our medical supply chain
It should have been an April Fools joke, but it really happened. A Russian cargo jet landed in the United States last week carrying masks and other medical supplies to aid our response to the coronavirus pandemic. So if nothing else, this propaganda stunt by Moscow reveals the simple fact that we need a serious conversation about the national supply chain for critical materials, which is woefully unprepared for a crisis.
Perhaps even worse, the Department of Homeland Security reports that the national stockpile of personal protective gear is almost depleted. In the sobering words of an official, “The stockpile was designed to respond to a handful of cities. It was never built or designed to fight a pandemic in 50 states.” The official said the supply chain for personal protective gear has also broken down. Just how fragile is the supply chain?
In the wake of Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico and left it still recovering from that disaster, the world saw a significant shortage of intravenous bags. Why was this the case? Baxter International, a leading manufacturer of these critical items, like much of the island, lost power. The company shipped close to a million intravenous bags a day to the United States. With one storm, that capacity was wiped out.
The coronavirus has placed a sizable strain on global health infrastructure and increased demand for drugs, vitamins, antibiotics, and other medical necessities. Where exactly does the United States get close to 90 percent of these materials from? The answer is China. According to research done by the Council on Foreign Relations, Chinese manufacturers do supply the overwhelming and alarming majority of vitamins, antibiotics, ibuprofen, acetaminophen, and hydrocortisone in the United States.
Just think about that. The leading economic competitor and the largest military challenge facing the United States, one with whom Washington has engaged in a trade war, supplies the vast majority of basic medicines and precursor chemicals. In the event of a crisis, such as the coronavirus pandemic or a confrontation in the South China Sea, what stops Beijing from suspending shipments of all of these drugs and tools?
If the Pentagon purchased 90 percent of its ammunition from a foreign country, let alone a competitor, that would be considered madness, and rightfully so. It is not just China. Imports from our ally India account for nearly a quarter of medicines in the United States, according to the Food and Drug Administration. Unsurprisingly, in the wake of the coronavirus, Delhi is restricting exports of more than two dozen key medicines and ingredients to prepare for the disease spreading across India.
The global economy with the fruits we all enjoy is perfectly suited for an environment with no crisis. That we can order nearly anything online and have it to our doors in a matter of days is a marvel of modern society. But we are poorly equipped to handle a crisis. We have a very integrated and connected horizontal network that is vulnerable to vertical system shocks. The responsibility of protecting and supporting the domestic population always trumps encouraging free trade during a global crisis.
Washington should think beyond convenience and prepare for the worst case scenario. This is not a matter of panic but one of prudent planning. As the first step, the United States needs to stockpile critical materials in advance of a crisis, such as masks, respirators, antibiotics, and more. The national stockpile needs to be dramatically enhanced to include the very things we are running short now to prepare for a crisis. Reports noted that even before this pandemic, the national stockpile had 1 percent of masks that we need and perhaps just 8,900 additional ventilators.
Congress must get behind enhancing the national stockpile and growing it to include more of the basic materials that the United States is running short of in the response to the current outbreak. These materials could be used in any number of medical crises or disasters and not just a disease pandemic. While it may have been difficult before the coronavirus hit, I suspect getting Congress behind this may be easier today.
Washington needs to drill these crisis scenarios at the federal and state levels. A significant part of the problem today is mixed messaging and confusion over who is doing what and when. The government regularly runs tabletop exercises and war games, but it is clear that these are not done frequently enough, include the right people, or incorporated into the emergency operations plans. The United States simply cannot afford delays because of miscommunication or unclear guidance.
Congress also needs to incentivize American manufacturers to produce vitamins, medicines, vaccines, and materials at home or be prepared to in the event of a crisis. This pandemic highlights that we cannot afford to be beholden to other countries for such critical materials. I am all for the free market and smart globalization, but right now the risks to the system are too high for the price being paid. The coronavirus shows just how fragile our system is, but we can strengthen it, reduce if not end our traditional dependence on unreliable foreign suppliers, and ultimately provide an insurance policy for our country by preparing for the worst.
Mike Rogers is a former member of Congress who served as chairman of the House Intelligence Committee. He is now the David Abshire Chair at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress and is a senior fellow with the Intelligence Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard University. Follow him @RepMikeRogers.
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