John Whelan: Coronavirus focus falls on major pharma firms and their links to China

As the World Health Organisation scrambles for a cure to the Coronavirus, a further crisis is simmering: The global dependence on China for the production of key ingredients in the global supply chain for antibiotics, diabetes drugs, painkillers and also many electronic components for medical devices.

John Whelan: Coronavirus focus falls on major pharma firms and their links to China

As the World Health Organisation scrambles for a cure to the Coronavirus, a further crisis is simmering: The global dependence on China for the production of key ingredients in the global supply chain for antibiotics, diabetes drugs, painkillers and also many electronic components for medical devices.

The Chinese city of Wuhan, at the epicentre of the Coronavirus, is a significant player in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, with multiple pharmaceutical companies located in the city.

How many of these factories have closed as a result of the pandemic, and when will those that have closed open back up is a worrying question for the pharmaceutical industry. Global supply chains could reach a crisis point within weeks if the quarantine factories don’t get back to normal production immediately.

With a majority of some US medical supplies originating in China, the coronavirus could have "chilling implications" for supply chains, Robert Kadlec, assistant secretary at the US Department of Health, said last week.

Ireland is a major supplier of the active pharmaceutical ingredients used in the making of prescription drugs for the US but China is the only global supplier of active ingredients of some vital medications, including medicines that treat breast and lung cancers.

Ireland is also a strong global supplier of medical devices, but depends on China for certain key components. Supplies of these essential products have not yet been severely disrupted by the coronavirus, but if factories in China become embroiled in the clampdown, healthcare crises could hit European and US patients.

European and US pharmaceutical manufacturers say they are on alert for potential materials shortages. The industry depends on a vast international network of sub suppliers and specialist manufacturers with China linked to the entire pharma value chain.

GlaxoSmithKline, Mylan, and Pfizer -- which all have major facilities in Ireland -- have said in recent weeks they have seen no disruption. Chinese officials maintain that China is slowly getting back to work. But supply chains in the pharmaceutical industry are complicated, and the original source of material is not always clear.

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