Silent Threat of the Coronavirus: America’s Dependence on Chinese Pharmaceuticals
By Christine Crudo Blackburn, Andrew Natsios Gerald W Parker and Leslie Ruyle
As the new coronavirus, called 2019-nCoV, spreads rapidly around the globe, the international community is scrambling to keep up. Scientists rush to develop a vaccine, policymakers debate the most effective containment methods, and health care systems strain to accommodate the growing number of sick and dying. Though it may sound like a scene from the 2011 movie "Contagion," it is actually an unfolding reality.
In the midst of all of this, a potential crisis simmers in the shadows: The global dependence on China for the production of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment.
Chinese Dominance in the Pharmaceutical Market
We represent an interdisciplinary group of scientists and policymakers at the Scowcroft Institute's Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program based at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M University who have been holding annual summits addressing pandemic-related issues for the past five years. One of our goals is to promote dialogue on potential risks related to pandemics and U.S. security, in this case the disruption of supply chains and availability of medical supplies and drugs.
Today, about 80% of pharmaceuticals sold in the U.S. are produced in China. This number, while concerning, hides an even greater problem: China is the largest and sometimes only global supplier for the active ingredient of some vital medications. The active ingredients for medicines that treat breast cancer and lung cancer and the antibiotic Vancomycin, which is a last resort antibiotic for some types of antimicrobial resistant infections, are made almost exclusively in China. Additionally, China controls such a large market portion of heparin, a blood thinner used in open-heart surgery, kidney dialysis and blood transfusions that the U.S. government was left with no choice but to continue buying from China even after a contamination scandal in 2007.
China is not only the dominant global supplier of pharmaceuticals, but it is also the largest supplier of medical devices in the U.S. These include things like MRI equipment, surgical gowns, and equipment that measures oxygen levels in the blood. Supplies of these essential products have not yet been severely disrupted by the coronavirus, but if China is no longer will or able to supply them to the U.S., thousands of Americans could die.
More concerning still are the limited options available to the U.S. and the rest of the globe to make up the shortfall. It could take years to develop the necessary infrastructure to reestablish U.S. manufacturing capacities and obtain Food and Drug Administration licensure to overcome the loss of the Chinese supply.
When a disease reaches epidemic levels, the first obligation for leaders in any country is to protect their own people. As this current crisis progresses, there may come a point when political leaders in China will face decisions on whether to prohibit the export of pharmaceuticals, medical devices and other vital medical components in order to treat or protect their own people. Such acts would be the logical outcome of an escalating situation. For the 2009 H1N1 pandemic response, for example, the U.S. was pushed to the back of the queue for vaccine deliveries even though we had existing contracts with a major vaccine manufacturer located in another country. Those vaccine deliveries were delayed.
Disruption of Global Pharmaceuticals?
While a total loss of active ingredient imports from China might seem far-fetched, we believe the increasing scale of the outbreak moves it closer to the realm of possibility.
About six weeks into international recognition of the epidemic in China, there are already shortages of vital personal protective equipment in both China and the U.S. UPS has transported more than 2 million masks and 11,000 gowns to Wuhan to help alleviate the shortage. But what happens when everyone runs out of protective equipment?
Wuhan is a significant player in the biotechnology and pharmaceutical industry, with multiple pharmaceutical companies located in the city. How many of these factories have closed as a result of the pandemic, and when will those that have closed open back up? Global supply chains could reach a crisis point if they are compromised because Hubei province, where Wuhan is located, is in quarantine and factories are shut down.
Additionally, Wuhan is the location of China's first Biosafety Level (BSL) 4 laboratory, which was opened in 2017 to research SARS and other emerging diseases. It is the only lab in China that can safely handle the world's most dangerous pathogens that pose a significant risk of transmission. Infection, death and quarantine in Wuhan and the surrounding Hubei province is restricting the ability of all types of commerce in the region. Meanwhile, the virus is already creating a significant supply chain imbalance within China. That means those medical supply companies will be under pressure to keep any products produced within the country for protection of their own health care workers, laboratory personnel and the general public.
The regulatory apparatus to insure that the Chinese manufactured pharmaceuticals being exported meet the highest standards of safety and quality control are weak or nonexistent, according to a congressional report last year. The pressure placed on supply chains by the outbreak could further exacerbate existing quality control challenges. In doing so, the virus has highlighted our reliance on China as a U.S. national security issue due to outsourcing our manufacturing capabilities and inability to ensure quality control.
As with all pandemics, the complexity of this outbreak demands international collaboration and transparency. At the same time, U.S. public health officials must acknowledge the country's vulnerability due to our dependence on Chinese production of pharmaceuticals and medical equipment. The U.S. must develop a response plan for the inevitable shortages in the near-term and take necessary actions to reclaim control of our medical supply chain. Continuing to overlook this long-known vulnerability will only lead to catastrophe.
Christine Crudo Blackburn is a postdoctoral research fellow at the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.
Andrew Natsios is the director of the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs and Executive Professor, Texas A&M University.
Gerald W Parker is the associate dean for Global One Health, College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; and the Director for the Pandemic and Biosecurity Policy Program, Scowcroft Institute for International Affairs, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.
Leslie Ruyle is the assistant director at the Scowcroft Institute of International Affairs, Bush School of Government and Public Service, Texas A&M University.
Disclosure statement: Andrew Natsios is affiliated with the Bush School of Government, The Hudson Institute, Scowcroft Institute at the Bush School of Government at Texas A&M Univ, and Fio Corp.
Christine Crudo Blackburn, Gerald W Parker, and Leslie Ruyle do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Reposted with permission from The Conversation.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Coronavirus Shines Light on Zoos as Danger Zones for Deadly Disease Transmission Between Humans and Animals
By Marilyn Kroplick
The term "zoonotic disease" wasn't a hot topic of conversation before the novel coronavirus started spreading across the globe and upending lives. Now, people are discovering how devastating viruses that transfer from animals to humans can be. But the threat can go both ways — animals can also get sick from humans. There is no better time to reconsider the repercussions of keeping animals captive at zoos, for the sake of everyone's health.
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By Kate Whiting
Bernice Dapaah calls bamboo "a miracle plant," because it grows so fast and absorbs carbon. But it can also work wonders for children's education and women's employment – as she's discovered.
These are the world's most bicycle-friendly cities. Statista<p>"The reason we use bamboo to manufacture bicycles is because it's found abundantly in Ghana and this is not a material we're going to import," says Dapaah, one of the World Economic Forum's Young Global Leaders.</p><p>"It's a new innovation. There were no existing bamboo bike builders in our country, so we were the first people trying to see how best we could utilize the abundant bamboo in Ghana."</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="a335b5dffdd806bd6bb4debea90c2045"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/dxsb9c4HMn0?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
Supporting Students<p>Besides encouraging Ghanaians to swap vehicles for affordable bikes, Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative is helping students save time on walking to school so they have more time to learn.</p><p>Each time they sell a bike, they donate a bike to a schoolchild in a rural community, who might otherwise have to walk for hours to get to school.</p><p>Dapaah knows how transformative a shorter journey to school can be to academic performance. She grew up living with her <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sb3joGYmx9A&feature=emb_logo" target="_blank">grandpa, a forester in a rural part of the country</a>.</p><p>"We had to walk three and a half hours every day before I could go to school. He later bought me a bike, so I finished senior high and wanted to go to university."</p><p>The experience inspired her to launch Ghana Bamboo Bikes Initiative with two other students at college.</p><p>"When we started this initiative, I looked back and said, when I was young, I had to walk miles before I could get to school, and sometimes if I was late, I was punished.</p><p>"Why don't we donate bikes for students to encourage them to study and so they can have enough time to be on books."</p><p>To date, they have sold more than 3,000 road, mountain and children's bikes – and Dapaah says they plan to donate <a href="https://www.entrepreneur.com/video/350343" target="_blank">10,000 bikes to schoolchildren over five years</a>.</p>
Empowering Women<p>The enterprise is also providing local jobs. It teaches young people to build bikes, particularly women and those in rural communities, where jobs can be scarce. More than 50% of people they have trained are women.</p><p>Dapaah says they want to boost the number of people they employ to 250 over the next five years and they are looking to partner with NGOs to build a childcare facility so mothers can continue to work.</p>
Reducing Emissions<p>By promoting a cycling culture in Ghana, Dapaah says they're also committed to reducing emissions in the transport sector and contributing to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.</p><p>"I love the idea of reusing bamboo to promote sustainable cycling. People want to go green, low-carbon, lean-energy efficient," she says.</p>
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Deforestation coupled with the rampant destruction of natural resources will soon have devastating effects on the future of society as we know it, according to two theoretical physicists who study complex systems and have concluded that greed has put us on a path to irreversible collapse within the next two to four decades, as VICE reported.
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By Kristen Pope
Melting and crumbling glaciers are largely responsible for rising sea levels, so learning more about how glaciers shrink is vital to those who hope to save coastal cities and preserve wildlife.
Groans, Creaks, Icebergs’ Calving Splashes<p>Oskar Glowacki already knew that melting glacial ice sounds like frying bacon. As ice bubbles burst, anyone nearby can hear crackling and popping, said Glowacki, a postdoctoral scholar at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Using hydrophones, he and other scientists now can make more nuanced measurements of how a changing climate sounds underwater, from the groans, creaks and splashes of a calving iceberg to the changes in whale songs as the ocean warms.</p><p>Glowacki recently used a pair of hydrophones to study the underwater world of glaciers, publishing his findings in <a href="https://www.the-cryosphere.net/14/1025/2020/" target="_blank">The Cryosphere</a>. He and co-author Grant B. Deane measured glacier retreat by <a href="https://yaleclimateconnections.org/2020/07/melting-glaciers-sound-like-frying-bacon/" target="_blank">recording the sounds of ice</a> – from small chunks to enormous slabs – falling off the glacier and splashing into the water.</p><p>During the summer of 2016, Glowacki's team placed two hydrophones near Hansbreen Glacier in Hornsund Fjord, Svalbard. For a month and a half, they recorded sounds, also using three time-lapse cameras to collect images – including the "drop height" (how far the ice fell into the water) – so they could compare photos to the recordings. The team created a formula to represent the relationship between the size of a piece of ice falling from a glacier and the sound it makes underwater, also accounting for the pieces of ice falling from varying heights. (Hear an example of the sound an iceberg makes while calving <a href="https://soundcloud.com/user-248456662/iceberg-calving-hansbreen-glacier" target="_blank">here</a>.)</p>
Unlocking Information About Antarctic Ice Shelf<p>Other researchers also are using hydrophones to learn more about crumbling glaciers. Bob Dziak, research oceanographer with the NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory <a href="https://www.pmel.noaa.gov/acoustics" target="_blank">acoustics research group</a>, captured a massive calving event of the Nansen Ice Shelf in Antarctica with a hydrophone. He published the results with colleagues in <a href="https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/feart.2019.00183/full" target="_blank">Frontiers in Earth Science</a></p><p>On April 7, 2016, satellite images showed a massive calving event had occurred on the ice shelf. The paper described it as the "first large scale calving event in >30 years."</p><p>However, once Dziak and colleagues delved into the data from three hydrophones deployed 60 kilometers east of the ice shelf, they uncovered a series of "icequakes" from January to early March 2016. He and other researchers believe that much of the ice actually broke free in mid-January to February, but it remained in the same location until an April storm – which their paper described as the "largest low-pressure storm recorded in the previous seven months" – broke the ice free.</p><p>"We suspected that the icebergs broke apart but remained in place – kind of pinned in place – until a major storm with high winds passed through the area and, finally, it was that last push that pushed the icebergs out to sea," Dziak says.</p><p>He and his co-authors wrote that "fortuitous timing and proximity of the hydrophone deployment presented a rare opportunity to study cryogenic signals and ocean ambient sounds of a large-scale ice shelf calving and iceberg formation event."</p>
Listening to Songs of Humpback Whales<p><a href="https://www.mbari.org/" target="_blank">Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute</a> studies the ocean, including its acoustics. One of the institute's projects involves examining the soundscape of California's Monterey Bay, including sounds from animals, humans, weather, and geologic processes like earthquakes. The researchers once even recorded an under-sea landslide. They also focus on recording and analyzing the <a href="http://www.mbari.org/humpback-song/" target="_blank">songs of humpback whales</a>. Male humpback whales' songs can be over 15 minutes in length, and they can be repeated for long periods of time – even hours. Listening to these songs and analyzing them can provide unique insights into the lives of these complex animals.</p><p>"Any time we want to study marine mammals, sound gives us a window into their lives because they use sound for all of their essential life activities, really," says institute biological oceanographer John Ryan. "Communication, foraging, reproduction, navigation – depending on the species, of course."</p><p>Previously, scientists had thought singing occurred only during courtship and mating, but now they think whales may also use song while migrating and hunting. They know song has a crucial role in the whales' lives.</p><p>"There's a whole other dimension to humpback whale song," Ryan says. "It is a mode of cultural transmission in this species. They learn songs from each other. They share songs as a population, and when populations mix and mingle, they learn new ideas, they explore with their song, improvise, and it's a real essential part of their culture."</p>
By William S. Lynn, Arian Wallach and Francisco J. Santiago-Ávila
A number of conservationists claim cats are a zombie apocalypse for biodiversity that need to be removed from the outdoors by "any means necessary" – coded language for shooting, trapping and poisoning. Various media outlets have portrayed cats as murderous superpredators. Australia has even declared an official "war" against cats.
Faulty Scientific Reasoning<p>In our <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13527" target="_blank">most recent publication</a> in the journal Conservation Biology, we examine an error of reasoning that props up the moral panic over cats.</p><p>Scientists do not simply collect data and analyze the results. They also establish a logical argument to explain what they observe. Thus, the reasoning behind a factual claim is equally important to the observations used to make that claim. And it is this reasoning about cats where claims about their threat to global biodiversity founder. In our analysis, we found it happens because many scientists take specific, local studies and overgeneralize those findings to the world at large.</p><p>Even when specific studies are good overall, projecting the combined "results" onto the world at large can cause unscientific overgeneralizations, particularly when <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tree.2015.01.003" target="_blank">ecological context is ignored</a>. It is akin to pulling a quote out of context and then assuming you understand its meaning.</p>
Ways Forward<p>So how might citizens and scientists chart a way forward to a more nuanced understanding of cat ecology and conservation?</p><p>First, those examining this issue on all sides can acknowledge that both the well-being of cats and the survival of threatened species are legitimate concerns.</p><p>Second, cats, like any other predator, affect their ecological communities. Whether that impact is good or bad is a complex value judgment, not a scientific fact.</p><p>Third, there is a need for a more rigorous approach to the study of cats. Such an approach must be mindful of the importance of ecological context and avoid the pitfalls of faulty reasoning. It also means resisting <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/cobi.13126" target="_blank">the siren call of a silver (lethal) bullet</a>.</p>
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