Covid-19 has depleted stockpiles of essential medicines and strained pharmaceutical manufacturing supply chains in the U.S.
In May, the FDA reported shortages of drugs including paralytics, which are needed to safely and painlessly insert breathing tubes, and analgesics, which manage pain while patients are on ventilators. Demand for these drugs rose 213% from January to April; at the peak, order fill rates — the rate that orders are filled and shipped to hospitals — dropped to 37%.
This is an immediate problem, but not a new one. For decades, the U.S. has sourced the active ingredients for many drugs from other countries; 80% of manufacturers are outside the U.S. With Covid-19, there is now a bill proposed in the House of Representatives that calls for measures that would diversify our pharmaceutical supply; the Trump administration is preparing an executive order that would require essential drugs to be made domestically. Policy changes are necessary, but the steps taken so far don’t fix the underlying problem: that our supply chains can’t respond to sudden changes in demand.
Christina Smolke, a Stanford Bioengineering Professor and CEO and co-founder of Antheia, explains how two technologies - synthetic biology and fermentation - offer a promising alternative to traditional manufacturing.