China syndromePrescription for trouble: China about to dominate global drug market

Published 7 December 2007

China dominates the production of antibiotics, and Chinese companies have captured a major share of the global sales of many vitamins, antibiotics, enzymes, and painkillers; this is not good for U.S. national security (China now controls key ingredients of Cipro and doxycycline); this is not good for U.S. consumers (China’s drug manufacturing is characterized by lax standards, little by way of enforcement, and corruption)

Here is a prescription for trouble: The medicine cabinet in the average U.S. home is filling with drugs made in China. China’s booming pharmaceutical industry has doubled exports to the United States in the past five years, undercutting competitors and making American consumers reliant on the safety of Chinese factories and captive to any disruptions in Sino-U.S. commerce. Kansas City Star’s Tim Johnson writes that Ii might seem like merely a trade issue, but that industry experts in Europe and the United States say that national security concerns are edging into the debate.

Just consider this scenario: If a major anthrax attack were to occur in the United States — larger than the one in 2001, when five people died — pharmaceutical companies that make the two antibiotics most suitable for treatment, Cipro and doxycycline, would have no choice but to rely on China or India for key ingredients once American stockpiles were exhausted. These ingredients no longer are made in the West. A Portuguese company which ramped up doxycycline production in 2001 at U.S. request said that China now controlled the flow of its crucial drug component. “If we were asked to do this again, we would be dependent on China providing us with key starting materials that are unavailable in the rest of the world,” said Guy Villax, chief executive of Hovione, a Lisbon-based fine chemicals company.

The spectacular growth of China’s pharmaceutical industry coincides with equally specatcular problems. A kickback scandal ensnared China’s State Food and Drug Administration and its chief in charges that they gave approval for bogus drugs, including a counterfeit antibiotic that left thirteen people dead. Wary of rising public anger, the state issued a Draconian sanction: It executed the agency chief in July. Cases of tainted toothpaste, toys, and pet food that have made global consumers wary of the Made in China label added urgency to a high-profile drug agency purge. Even so, China’s $65 billion pharmaceutical industry is galloping at an annual growth rate of 24 percent in the first eight months of this year. Competitors say China’s drug companies not only have low-cost advantages but also get a nearly free pass from U.S. drug regulators, who hold the screws to American companies — raising their costs significantly — but rarely inspect in China. China says that it is a reliable source of safe medicine for its own citizens and export