The national supply of antibiotics, vaccines and many other drugs depends on Chinese manufacturers and that puts military personnel — and the general public — at risk, U.S. Rep. Vicky Hartzler said in a telephone news conference about a bill she is sponsoring with a California Democrat.
Hartzler, R-Harrisonville, and U.S. Rep. John Garamendi spoke to reporters from Washington about Garamendi's bill, which Hartzler is co-sponsoring, to direct the Department of Defense to study the issue. The goal, they said, is to encourage U.S. manufacturers to take over the business as a matter of national security.
Chinese makers have 97 percent of the U.S. antibiotic market, Hartzler said.
"If they chose to withhold them, that would be a problem," she said.
Garamendi is chair of the Readiness Subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee and Hartzler is also a member of the armed services committee. While they said they recognize that a shortage in some pharmaceutical markets, such as vaccines, could have a major impact on the civilian population, their bill focuses on the military because that provides the federal government more leverage.
For example, Garamendi said, the Defense Production Act of 1950 gives the president broad powers to influence domestic industries in the name of national defense.
"Our industrial base to make our generic medicine has left and we have to start somewhere," Garamendi said. "We have to build that capacity here in the U.S."
The legislation was inspired by a 2018 book, China Rx: Exposing the Risks of America's Dependence on China for Medicine, written by Rosemary Gibson and Janardan Prasad Singh, Garamendi said. That book details how the Chinese government systematically built up its domestic pharmaceutical industry and put its stamp of dominance on the world market.
"It is clear that China controls the generic drug market our military needs to stay healthy," Garamendi said.
The Defense Health Agency manages military medical care and is supposed to only purchase drugs made in the U.S. or another country that meets federal standards. But it has issued waivers for 150 drugs that can't be obtained otherwise, Bloomberg reported last year.
One issue with the supply chain is that drugs that do come from approved countries use ingredients made in China and the regulations apply only to the final product, Bloomberg reported. Some products have proven to be tainted with chemicals that cause cancer and the military also fears a shortage of important drugs.
"It is the only place where the ingredients are available and therefore the U.S. military has to go to China and rely upon China for drugs to keep our troops healthy and disease free," Garamendi said. "We don't want China to have that kind of leverage over the U.S. military."
With the outbreak of a new coronavirus in China, the government there may decide it needs pharmaceutical manufacturers to focus on products that will combat the disease, Hartzler noted.
Other products are subject to the same disruptions, she said.
"Most of the basic syringes and basic, most effective breathing masks are produced by China," she said. "There are many reasons why John and I feel so strongly about this bill."
The bill has not received a committee hearing, but Hartzler and Garamendi said they hope to persuade their colleagues to include it in this year's National Defense Authorization Act, which sets spending and legislative targets for the Defense Department.