If “an army marches on its stomach,” it will require more than daily bread and antacids. In fact, our modern military — both active duty and retired — reflects our modern American society with its reliance on prescription drugs as a critical component of health care.
That’s why recent reports of contaminated Chinese-made generic drug ingredients are causing more than heartburn in Washington. The Trump administration correctly views it as a risk to our national security.
My decade plus of service as a member of Congress on the House Ways and Means Committee provided unique insights into our relationship with China. Since that panel has jurisdiction over international trade and health care, Chinese intentions were often the subject of vigorous debate — both publicly and privately.
Pro-China trade advocates maintain that the Communist nation is moving toward “free market” policy; a more accurate assessment is that China employs a “martial market” policy. In other words, the Chinese view trade through the prism of military and geopolitical advantage. That advantage can come either through technology transfers which can enhance Chinese war-fighting capabilities or through actions that can inflict harm on a potential enemy.
The vulnerability of Americans through tainted prescription drugs is obvious and troubling.
Firsthand evidence of Chinese drug contamination includes an experienced and expert source. Dr. Larry M. Wortzel is an eight-term commissioner of the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission — a man who spent 32 years in our military, retiring as an Army colonel in 1999. He told Bloomberg that four of his blood-pressure medications were recalled in three months. Dr. Wortzel was taking a version of valsartan, an anti-hypertensive generic drug manufactured in India, but with active ingredients from China.
“They were contaminated with rocket fuel … I imagine active (military) people have the same problem,” Dr. Wortzel said. “This affects the readiness of our troops.”
The “rocket fuel” referred to by Dr. Wortzel is the probable carcinogen NDMA. Its discovery in valsartan prompted the Food Drug Administration (FDA) to announce a recall in July 2018 specifically naming China’s Zhejiang Huahai Pharmaceutical Co. The FDA believes the company’s manufacturing process created NDMA as a by-product that went undetected for four years. Other companies in other countries using similar manufacturing processes have had to start their own recalls.
Those recalls have done more than create business for law firms; they have prompted our national security apparatus to conduct a thorough re-examination of Chinese active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) and drug manufacturing in China. The National Security Council is trying to determine the most at-risk medications and the Defense Health Agency (DHA), which manages prescription drugs and other facets of health care for the military, understands the magnitude of the threat.
“The national security risks of increased Chinese dominance of the global API market cannot be overstated,” said Christopher Priest, the acting deputy assistant director for health care operations at the DHA.
So why have the risks of that Chinese API dominance and manufacturing “carelessness” been heretofore understated? Because American consumers and Washington policymakers have been enraptured with the notion that generic medications — no matter where they are made — bring down costs.
But recent events are prompting a reassessment within the body politic. Rosemary Gibson, the author of “China Rx,” in testimony before the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, put it this way: “We wouldn’t have our aircraft carriers and nuclear submarines built in China, and for very important medications we should really look at what it takes to purchase based on value not just price. We want cheap, we can buy cheap. But what’s missing from the whole equation is quality.”
Most assuredly, there are more variables to this equation — and other pieces of this geopolitical puzzle. As the U.S.-China trade dispute continues, there are fears that China could unilaterally cut off drug shipments to gain leverage in future negotiations.
But such an action by China would most likely trigger resentment and resolve on Main Street, Wall Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. Despite some predictions of panic, Americans would realize that unsafe Chinese medications not only threaten our military, but also our general population.
The Ancient Chinese military strategist and philosopher Sun Tzu famously observed that “Opportunities multiply as they are seized.”
Whether on Capitol Hill, at the White House or in the Pentagon, our policy makers must seize the opportunity to ensure the safety of prescription medicines. Not only is it a matter of public health and personal security, but perhaps most importantly national security.
• J.D. Hayworth is a former Republican U.S. representative from Arizona.