Dependence on Other Countries for Drugs: Govt Must Establish System to Ensure Reliable Supplies

This nation relies on other countries for medicines, giving rise to concerns over the protection of people’s lives and public health. It is imperative to build a system that can secure necessary quantities of medicines, even in situations in which overseas supplies are cut off due to unforeseen circumstances.

In 2019, Japan experienced a shortage of antimicrobial agents, which are essential for preventing infections during surgeries. The supply shortage problem arose as a China-based firm that dealt in a raw material suspended its operations due to some troubles and foreign bodies were discovered in the drug substances made by an Italian plant.

As a result, some Japan-based medical institutions reportedly encountered difficulties treating patients, including the postponement of surgeries.

Japan relies on the import of drug substances — the main ingredients of medicines — and related raw materials. The current situation in which Japan’s medical care is influenced by other countries’ circumstances not only affects the treatment of individuals, but also impacts people’s lives and economic security.

The government defines “specified critical materials” under the law for the promotion of economic security to support their stockpiling and production. These materials include some antimicrobial agents and other items such as semiconductors, rare earths and natural gas.

To help strengthen Japan’s drug-production capacity, the Health, Labor and Welfare Ministry has begun providing assistance to domestic pharmaceutical companies to help them set up manufacturing facilities for antimicrobial agents with the aim of establishing a self-sufficient system by 2030, according to the ministry.

Until the 1990s, Japan was a major manufacturer and exporter of drug substances for antimicrobial agents. However, with repeated revisions of the official prices paid for drugs, the prices for antimicrobial agents dropped to unprofitable levels, which led to a transfer of related technologies to China and other countries with low labor costs.

To secure important drugs, it is vital to have a self-sufficient system to deal with potential interruptions in the supply of drug substances from overseas.

However, even if such facilities are built with government funds, drug makers will stop running them if they do not generate a certain level of profits for the companies. It is hoped that the government will consider ways to ensure that important drugs are traded at appropriate prices.

Domestically produced drugs tend to have high labor and other costs. If it becomes necessary to raise the prices of such products, the government must provide thorough explanations to ensure public understanding.

Antimicrobial agents are not the only drugs that Japan relies on foreign countries for its supply. Global demand for drugs expanded worldwide due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, and some medicines are now in short supply because overseas manufacturers that export their products cannot keep pace with the rise in orders.

The government must carefully investigate the level of Japan’s dependence on other nations for drugs other than antimicrobial agents and consider taking steps to deal with potential supply shortfalls.

It is imperative, too, to devise ways to ensure that the procurement of drug substances and other materials is not biased toward certain countries, including China. Another crucial step is to ensure close cooperation with Western countries that, like Japan, rely on other countries for drug substances, to build relationships that will allow nations to help each other in cases of emergencies.

(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Dec. 29, 2023)