Published:  12:39 AM, 15 May 2020

Our leaders must wake up: Dependence on China is dangerous

Our leaders must wake up: Dependence on China is dangerous

Twenty years ago, Western countries believed that a modernising China would become "like us". We hoped that by trading and engaging with China, it would move to a more liberal and democratic state over time. It hasn't. In fact, it is moving further away. Yet some Western powers still cling to a China policy which is not only outdated but actively damaging.

We are now confronted with two visions for the future of humanity. The first is the 'Western' liberal model of a law-governed society of universal rights, reasonable data privacy and limited Government under the law. The second is the new authoritarian model championed by China (and other states) where freedoms are aggressively curtailed, politicians and party machines are above the law and where authoritarian rule prevails in many cases.

The coronavirus epidemic that's crashing the U.S. economy, putting lives at risk and derailing our entire way of life should serve as a wake-up call that the U.S. government must stop being reliant on China and other foreign nations for prescription drugs, medical supplies or any supply chain product or ingredient that's essential to our survival.

It's also a matter of national security. If members of the U.S. military and those who support our armed services don't get access to PPE (personal protective equipment), life-saving drugs and other necessities during a pandemic - and succumb to it as a result - we're putting our nation's security at risk from foreign adversaries who could exploit the situation.

"Medicines can be used as a weapon of war against the United States," Rosemary Gibson, a senior adviser on health care issues at the bioethics-focused Hastings Center and co-author of "China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America's Dependence on China for Medicine," warned lawmakers last year. "Supplies can be withheld. Medicines can be made with lethal contaminants or sold without any real medicine in them, rendering them ineffective, " reported Politico.

It's no secret that the United States is dangerously dependent on China for a bevy of medicines Americans rely on such as antibiotics, ibuprofen, penicillin and acetaminophen. "80 percent of Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients are produced abroad, the majority in China and India; however, the FDA only inspected one in five registered human drug manufacturing facilities abroad last year," Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley wrote in a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and the FDA last year.

Grassley also warned about the risks that come with foreign manufacturing of pharmaceuticals:

"I strongly encourage the administration's demonstration projects to include unannounced inspections in foreign manufacturing facilities to determine whether they meet the required Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients and drug quality and safety standards to include sufficient record-keeping, testing and protections against counterfeiting."

Given we know that China is responsible for the start of COVID-19, and its subsequent mishandling and cover-up, causing irreparable harm to the United States, Europe and the globe, is this who we want controlling our critical medical supply chain?

Absolutely not.

Nor do we want to be reliant on any other foreign nation for potentially life-saving drugs or medical equipment such as masks, gloves, ventilators or other critical products. This includes India, whose government has just announced it is banning exports of a malaria drug, hydroxychloroquine, that we're told may be helpful in treating patients with coronavirus.

That said, the Trump administration and Congress must make it a high priority to work alongside the private sector to dramatically ramp manufacturing here at home.

The coronavirus pandemic continues to wreak havoc across the United States and the world.

This week, the federal government released modeling data that forecasts between 100,000 and 240,000 deaths in the U.S. over the next few months.  Drs. Deborah Birx and Anthony Fauci emphasized that these projections could be higher or lower, largely dependent upon the willingness of the population to pay heed to social distancing guidelines.

We all hope and pray that these projections don't become true; but we are also mindful that the Spanish Flu pandemic of 100 years ago, killed over 600,000 Americans when our population was only one-third as large as it is today.

The pandemic has taken hold of both our health and our economy, but we cannot allow it to take hold of our spirit.

Few are now questioning the advice to stay home and to maintain social distancing. While we all want to see a return to normalcy, this won't happen soon until we're able to control the spread of the virus.

Amid this disaster, some promising signs are coming into view.

Pharmaceutical companies and diagnostic laboratories are developing quick, reliable COVID-19 tests.  Instead of waiting 2-4 days for test results, Abbot Labs has developed a screening kit which delivers results in 15 minutes.  Regeneron, a New York company, is providing New York State with 500,000 virus tests free of charge.

Local companies - and many others across the nation - are stepping up to manufacture N-95 masks, gloves and other personal protection garments for healthcare workers. At least 11 companies nationwide are embarked upon emergency manufacturing of ventilators. Trials are underway, including a major study here in New York State, to determine the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, a commonly used malaria drug as a therapeutic treatment for COVID-19.

In addition, vaccine development is quickly moving ahead, led by public and private research labs and by major pharmaceutical companies.  Federal regulatory authorities at the CDC and FDA are moving with uncommon speed to authorize clinical trials. Our experience with the virus will also bring change. More employers will increasingly move to work from home. Colleges will move to distance learning and parents - rebelling at tuition costs - will likely insist. We likely won't be shaking hands as frequently. And we have to ensure domestic production of needed medical supplies.

One change is long overdue: ending our dangerous dependence on China for prescription and over-the-counter drugs. As documented by Rosemary Gibson, a scholar at the Hastings Center, China has positioned itself to be the drug producer for the entire world.  Virtually all generic antibiotics prescribed in the U.S. come from China.  No U.S. company currently produces penicillin and China has effectively created a state-run cartel that produces at below market prices, driving foreign competition out of business.

The U.S. no longer produces generic antibiotics for a whole host of conditions.  The drug for your child's ear infection or strep throat?  According to Gibson, that medication comes from China, as do antibiotics to combat pneumonia, urinary tract infections, sexually transmitted diseases and a whole host of drug components.

Dependence on China also creates a national security issue for our nation.  China is both a military and economic threat to the U.S. and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. It seeks to expand its influence around the world, often to the detriment of the United States.  We shouldn't allow critical pharmaceutical supplies to be dependent on Chinese cartels controlled by that government.  The sooner we secure reliable domestic and friendly foreign nation supplies of critical drugs, the better.

I have no doubt that we will conquer the coronavirus and begin again to restore a semblance of normalcy to our economy and healthcare system.  We cannot thank our healthcare workers enough and all those who've stepped forward to aid others in our time of national crisis.  Let's hope that we remember the lessons learned from this experience and better protect our citizens from these threats in the future. The future of this country is at stake, and there's simply no time to waste.

The writer is a British political analyst. The article first appeared in The Times.

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