Fighting the coronavirus has taken its toll on healthcare systems worldwide, from the mental well-being of healthcare workers to shortages in essential equipment. With the steady rollout of COVID vaccines, the situation should improve, but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
According to a recent joint study by Saudi and Emirati researchers, the world still has to deal with a shortage of essential drugs. Demand for specific drugs went up over the initial months, but supply had been unable to meet it due to lockdowns and quarantines. The study warned that the healthcare system might face a surge in cases of diseases other than COVID.
It also doesn’t help that most pharmaceuticals have outsourced manufacturing overseas. A CNBC report estimates that 80% of the production for generic drugs and their ingredients come from India and China, among other places. The shortage has left hospitals and clinics with limited options for treating cancers and other deadly diseases.
So, what medical drugs are in short supply? As of this writing, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has reported shortages in over 100 of 155 registered essential drugs. Here are some of them:
While starting to recover, injectable amino acids, such as Aminosyn® II, still suffer from shortages due to the lack of active ingredients. Some companies expect to replenish their stocks as early as the first quarter of 2021, but others still have to perform limited allocations.
Injectable amino acids serve as alternative sources of protein and nitrogen, usually given to patients who can’t eat because of illness or surgery. A dose contains both essential (e.g., isoleucine, leucine) and non-essential (e.g., alanine, arginine) amino acids.
Several pharmaceuticals have stopped producing dehydrated alcohol, primarily injectable ethanol, as early as 2020. This article explains the reason for the decision, where the primary manufacturer had encountered issues. Until the company meets the FDA’s stringent requirements for producing the substance, the shortage will continue.
Dehydrated alcohol plays a crucial role in producing essential drugs. Its low toxicity and ability to dissolve certain ingredients make it a safe solvent. Doctors also administer it to patients suffering from nerve pain, or delaminate the cornea to treat corneal erosion.
America’s love-hate relationship with opioids goes back to as early as the Civil War, when they were the best doctors had for treating most diseases. The pre-pandemic opioid crisis left the country with a shortage of these painkillers when it needed them the most.
Opioid manufacturers have reported shortages for morphine and hydromorphone, two of the most widely used opioids due to increased demand. If you’ve witnessed how hospitals and clinics treat COVID patients, you know that they use ventilators often. As running a tube through the patient’s chest causes discomfort, the treatment also involves painkillers.
The current shortage is by no means an isolated case. A morphine shortage in 2010 forced doctors to switch to hydromorphone, which has a different dosage from morphine. Miscalculations proved fatal for a handful of patients; experts fear that today’s crisis may repeat such a scenario.
While saline bags are simple saltwater solutions, making them requires additional steps to protect them from contamination. They’re inexpensive but indispensable drugs used for virtually everything, from infusion to hydration. Experts estimate that the U.S. requires around 40 million saline bags every month, which manufacturers have struggled to meet for years.
While the supply of 0.9% bags is still viable, the FDA reports shortages of 23.4% bags, vials, and syringes for 0.9% injectables. Aside from the increase in demand, the country’s fragile supply chain also plays a factor.
When Hurricane Maria laid waste to Puerto Rico in 2017, it hit the facility that produced saline for a major manufacturer. Losing that manufacturer hampered the already delicate supply situation as the rest struggled even more to meet demand.
With pharmaceuticals focused on producing enough COVID vaccines, any rigorous effort to solve drug shortages is set back months or years. Not only because there aren’t enough drugs available, but also the ones currently in stock might not be effective enough. For instance, the rapid mutation of lung cancer has outpaced the development of more effective medication.
Nevertheless, the healthcare industry must start implementing stopgaps, if not long-term solutions. Among these include diversifying the supply network, gathering and assessing real-time analytics, and increasing the supply of drugs anticipated to run out quickly.
The general public can contribute to the solution by maintaining a healthy lifestyle and practicing social distancing. That way, they can reduce the need for hospital or clinic visits, which minimizes infection.