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US running low on more than a dozen drugs needed to treat coronavirus patients

Business Insider logo Business Insider 4/1/2020 Lydia Ramsey
a person sitting in front of a mirror posing for the camera © Reuters/Stephane Mahe

As hospitals around the U.S. grapple with a rising number of coronavirus patients falling critically ill, the country has started running low on the drugs used to treat those patients.

Premier, which works with hospitals around the US in part by helping them purchase medications, on Tuesday pulled together a list of drugs at risk of shortages. Some of the treatments are officially in shortage, according to the US Food and Drug Administration. Others are seeing demand skyrocket, making it difficult for hospitals to get their orders filled.

"Any time you're not seeing orders 100% fulfilled is when you start having an early warning sign that a shortage may be coming," Soumi Saha, a senior director of advocacy at Premier, told Business Insider.

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That includes antibiotics like azithromycin and antivirals like chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, which as of Tuesday are considered in shortage by the FDA.

It also includes drugs used when putting patients on ventilators to help with their breathing, including sedatives like fentanyl, midazolam, and propofol and neuromuscular blockers cisatracurium and rocuronium, a survey conducted by Premier found.

That could pose a problem if drug manufacturers can't respond to the surge in demand.

Patients using ventilators to help with breathing and give the lungs a chance to recover from the virus are typically sedated throughout the treatment to keep them from interfering with the breathing tube. While supplies of ventilators can be made by other manufacturers, standing up new drugmakers to help keep up with demand isn't quite as simple.

"The biggest challenge with drugs is that it's not resilient," Saha said. "Drugs is where you have to be extremely proactive. You have to leverage early warning signals right now." 

Related video: Pharmacist concerned about COVID-19 drug hoarding (provided by WNEM)


Read more: The US is sprinting to develop a coronavirus vaccine or treatment. Here's how 12 top drugmakers are racing to tackle the pandemic.

Saha said the buying habits she's seeing from hospitals are "unprecedented," especially given how much of current treatment for the virus is still being determined.

For instance, purchases of ascorbic acid, otherwise known as Vitamin C, rose almost overnight after the publication of a study showing its positive effects in intensive care treatment for the novel coronavirus. That could pose a problem, as there's only one manufacturer of ascorbic acid for hospital use in the US.

"Nobody wants to be in a situation where they don't have drugs on hand," Saha said.


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