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Devastation to Puerto Rico threatens global medicine supply

Published on 27/09/17 at 08:42am
IMAGE: NOAA Satellites

The destructive forces of Hurricane Maria have caused untold damage to the island nation, with a reported 13 people left dead and electricity down. However, there is another problem that has arisen that may have left many unaware – facilities on Puerto Rico are responsible for manufacturing a large number of medicines sold worldwide.

12 of the 20 top pharma and biotech companies have manufacturing facilities on the island and there are 50 pharmaceuticals plants in total located there. Many will have had contingency plans in place, hurricane season coming as no surprise in the Caribbean; however, the scale of destruction is on an unprecedented scale and many facilities will be relying on back-up generators.

Among the immediate challenges for companies in the area was ensuring the safety of employees; a week on from the hurricane hitting, many people are still focused on looking after families and, with communications being hit badly, even connecting with employees in difficulty has proved problematic.

Puerto Rico became a hub for the manufacture of pharmaceuticals in the late 1960s and 1970s, taking advantage of a federal tax incentive that allowed US-based manufacturers to avoid paying tax on profits. The legacy still stands today and, though the industry is dwindling, the island still produces 16 of the top 20 selling drugs for the mainland US and seven of the top 10 drugs sold globally.

The FDA announced that it would take unprecedented steps to intervene in the crisis, with Scott Gottlieb signalling the dangers that a breakdown in supply of medicine from the island could entail: “News coverage has touched on an issue about which we at FDA are very concerned and we are working around the clock to address – the potential for shortages of critical life-saving and life-sustaining drugs needed by patients on and off the island…Since Friday, we have undertaken swift and extensive efforts to prevent or limit the loss or shortage of multiple drugs critical to American patients due to the challenges related to refrigeration, storage and transportation”

For his part, President Trump has announced that he plans to visit the island next week; he has been roundly criticised for both a slow response to the crisis, whilst also bringing the debt situation of Puerto Rico into the situation.

He tweeted, “Texas & Florida are doing great but Puerto Rico, which was already suffering from broken infrastructure & massive debt, is in deep trouble”. He went to reference money owed Wall Street, a tone that many found to be at odds with the humanitarian crisis currently ongoing. Funding and assistance has since been escalated to meet the needs of the 3.41 million US citizens living in Puerto Rico.

Ben Hargreaves

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