Australia is experiencing crippling mass shortages of hundreds of life-saving medications and a range of other healthcare products.

Since 2020, the TGA has listed in excess of 700 medicines as in limited supply.  Today, there are 290 medicines that are either ‘unavailable’ or in short supply.

Why is this happening?

Well it turns out that virtually all the world’s active pharmaceutical ingredients (APIs) and chemicals needed to manufacture essential medicines, are made in China.

In some cases, they are produced by just one Chinese factory!

Take piperacillin-tazobactam.  It is a critically important antibiotic that is made by a single factory in Hubei.

In 2016, an explosion destroyed it, causing a worldwide shortage that was later blamed for multiple deaths across Africa and Brazil.

Then there’s the single factory in Shanghai that makes a contrast dye needed for MRIs, CT scans and other life-saving diagnostic x-rays.

That factory has been shut down for months, again causing an ongoing worldwide shortage, including here in Australia.

The world is now over 90% dependent on China’s APIs for most of its essential medicines, including antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs and medications that treat cancer, HIV, asthma, heart problems, blood pressure, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, depression and seizures.

Even India, a major pharmaceutical manufacturer, relies on China for around 80% of the active ingredients used in its products.

As one researcher put it: “it’s the nightmare scenario”, with the world starting to run out of drugs with no easy alternative sources.

A lot of the problem is secrecy.

Regulators don’t even know the full picture of where all the ingredients in our medications actually come from.

And that’s because companies consider their API manufacturers to be proprietary information.

In February, the FDA announced that one drug was in short supply but wouldn’t say which, because naming it would have revealed “supply chain trade secrets”.

Many companies even hold plant locations as a closely held trade secret.

According to the Senior Director of a US Pharmacist Association that tracks shortages, it’s the murkiness of the supply chain that makes it hard to prevent shortages.

“And again, we don’t know where a lot of those drugs are made” he said.

The implications of all this for Australia’s national security are simply staggering.

AS Air Vice-Marshall Blackburn said at a Joint Standing Committee in 2020:

“We import about 90 per cent of our liquid fuels, 90 percent of our medicines and we rely on foreign-owned and flagged ships for about 98 per cent of our trade.  The import dependency has been further compounded by the failure of past governments to mandate stockholding levels for any of these imports.”

Those “past governments” have left Australia in an utterly untenable position.

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