Fortune

CRITICAL CONDITION

How a botched acquisition by Pfizer helped turn America’s chronic drug shortage into a full-blown crisis.
Pfizer employees monitor an aseptic sterile injectable filling line at a plant in Rocky Mount, N.C. The only human intervention in the process is through the yellow glove ports.

RANK

57

COMPANY PROFILE

PFIZER

REVENUES

$52. 5 BILLION

PROFITS

$21. 3 BILLION

EMPLOYEES

90,200

TOTAL RETURN TO SHAREHOLDERS (2007–2017 ANNUAL RATE)

9.3%

THIS FEBRUARY Ruth Landau, an obstetric anesthesiologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City, was making rounds when she got a disturbing call from one of the hospital’s pharmacists. The center was due to run out of bupivacaine, a local anesthetic used in virtually every baby delivery. Fast-acting and predictable, the numbing agent has long been the drug of choice for supporting childbirth, administered as an epidural for women in labor or as a spinal anesthetic for those having a cesarean section. Prepared in a dextrose solution, the syrup-like injection is especially critical in emergency deliveries.

“When the baby or mom is not doing well, every minute counts,” says Landau. “There really is no alternative that provides the same safety, reliability, and comfort that we all have using it.” If the hospital staff continued to use the drug at its usual rate, it would blow through the remaining supply in three weeks. The drug’s manufacturer, Pfizer, estimated the next delivery of the product would come in June.

A 20-year veteran of her field, Landau had seen a variety of drug shortages come and go during her career, but nothing of this magnitude, and never with such little warning: “Suddenly, we’re being told this one drug—the one we’ve been using for decades, that we know best how to give, how fast it kicks in, we can do it with our eyes shut—suddenly, we’re being told we won’t have that drug.” Within days, anesthesiologists at hospitals across North America were conferring about the same problem over social media; many were throwing out short-term fixes that were risky in their own right—putting delivering mothers under general anesthesia, for example. Landau thought the field had moved past such practices decades ago.

Such shortages may seem unfathomable in America where, when it comes to health care, we seemingly spare no expense—shelling out $3.3 trillion in 2016—and muse about the promising future of precision medicine. But even in our staggeringly costly and ambitious health care system, the bupivacaine shortage is not an outlier. Rather, it’s the new norm. Increasingly, the low-cost essential medicines that we’ve used for years—a category known as generic sterile injectable drugs, considered the “bread and butter” of hospital care—are in short supply.

As of last count, there were 202 medicines on the drug shortage list. They include a bafflingly wide array of medical staples such as epinephrine, morphine, and sterile water. Already

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