Industry and researchers count costs of Puerto Rico hurricane

Pharmaceutical firms with manufacturing sites in Puerto Rico are eager to ensure that global drug shortages don’t ensue after hurricane Maria devastated the island’s electrical infrastructure.

Pharmaceutical companies contacted by Research Europe said their manufacturing sites had sustained damage and were doing their best to operate, as 95 per cent of Puerto Rico remains without electricity. The hurricane, which struck on 20 September, is being called the worst storm to hit the island in 90 years.

Puerto Rico produces seven of the top 10 drugs sold worldwide and dozens of pharmaceutical companies have manufacturing facilities there—including Eli Lilly, Baxter, Merck and Pfizer. Medicines and medical equipment represented 72 per cent of the island’s exports in 2016, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Baxter told Research Professional that its sites had sustained “some damage” and that production was limited. As a result, it is now increasing assembly at other manufacturing plants. However, Tamara Hull, a representative of Eli Lilly, which has two manufacturing sites on the island, said her company did not expect operations to be hindered while infrastructure was being recovered.

“Our inventory strategy for products is designed to protect against this type of event and we see no product supply risk to global markets at this time,” she said.

Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration of the United States has increased efforts to protect the island’s medical manufacturing facilities. FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb said on 25 September that the administration was working with pharmaceutical firms to figure out the extent of the damage to facilities and whether they could continue to function on generator power.

“This is a catastrophic event unlike many the United States has faced,” said Gottlieb. “We have undertaken swift and extensive efforts to prevent or limit the loss of multiple drugs critical to American patients due to the challenges related to refrigeration, storage and transportation.” These include cancer drugs, immunosuppressants and devices needed for people with diabetes, he said.

However, the charity Oxfam has said it is “outraged” at the “slow and inadequate” response of the US government in providing aid for Puerto Rico. “The US has more than enough resources to mobilise an emergency response but has failed to do so in a swift and robust manner,” it said in a statement on 2 October. Oxfam said it rarely responds to humanitarian emergencies in the US, but as the situation worsens “and the federal government’s response continues to falter, we have decided to step in to lend our expertise”.

Both Baxter and Eli Lilly said they had flown in emergency donations of medication to Puerto Rico in response to an urgent request from the island’s department of health. Hull said that her company’s shipment included 2,400 insulin vials and pens, which will treat about 1,000 diabetes patients for 30 days.

Puerto Rico’s scientists have said their work has been devastated by the storm. Mónica Feliú-Mójer, vice-director at Ciencia Puerto Rico, an association representing Puerto Rican scientists, said that there had been widespread damage to some institutions. The medical sciences campus at the University of Puerto Rico, for example, has lost a lab roof, while flooding damaged equipment, she said.

Feliú-Mójer also described how researchers had to pull freezers into hallways, out of direct sunlight, to preserve samples after air conditioning systems failed. “There’s going to be samples that are spoiled and not only thousands of dollars lost, but years worth of work,” she said, adding that research has “pretty much stopped”.

Story published on Research Europe, October 5 2017

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