A tornado caused severe damage at a Pfizer drug manufacturing site in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, on Wednesday, threatening critical supplies to hospitals across the country.
The company has estimated that a quarter of the injectable medicines it supplies to US hospitals are made at the Rocky Mount site, including those used during surgeries and other procedures to help prevent pain, keep patients sedated and fight infections.
Although the company has not yet disclosed the extent of the storm’s impact, video footage of the site and interviews with the Nash County sheriff and with people briefed on the damage indicate that the hurricane caused the worst damage to the company’s warehouse.
On Thursday, Pfizer declined to comment on the affected drugs or what percentage of their supply was destroyed in the hurricane, which could be significant given that many of these drugs require careful production and handling to ensure sterility.
It is also unclear to what extent the destruction will exacerbate the current national shortage of medicines, which has reached highest level in 10 years in recent months. Hospitals are on high alert because lower-cost generic products manufactured on site, such as the sedative propofol, are already among the most vulnerable to shortages on the market.
“From a healthcare practitioner’s perspective, I’m just holding my breath,” said Michael Janio, senior director at the American Association of Health-System Pharmacists.
The tornado ripped through a 16-mile strip of land in the Rocky Mount area, about 50 miles east of Raleigh, around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. Trees were snapped at the base and homes dumped 20 yards from their foundations, according to an abstract from the National Weather Service. The tornado attained winds of up to 150 miles per hour before tearing large pieces of the metal roof of the Pfizer Corporation building and overturning large trucks in the parking lot. Sixteen people were injured, but there were no reports of deaths.
Several people said that the hurricane caused most of the damage to the company’s warehouse; The impact on the plant — and its ability to continue producing drugs — is not yet clear, according to Mittal Sutaria, senior vice president of pharmacy contracts at Vizient, which provides drug contracting for hospitals.
She said Pfizer and the Food and Drug Administration had teams on site to assess the harm.
Dr. Sutaria, who said Vizient has been in contact with Pfizer, added that the Rocky Mount location manufactured anesthesia products including propofol, used to sedate patients during surgery, as well as fentanyl and morphine, which are used in IVs to manage pain. It also makes vancomycin, an antibiotic given to fight severe infections, and muscle blockers including succinylcholine, also used in surgery.
Keith Stone, sheriff of Nash County, where Rocky Mountain is located, to local reporters On Wednesday, much of the Pfizer building collapsed, shattering the roof and destroying up to 50,000 tablets of drugs.
About 100 vehicles were also damaged, Sheriff Stone said in an interview Thursday, including forklift trucks that were strewn across nearby railroad tracks. “It’s amazing what can come so fast, have so much damage, and go away so quickly,” he said.
Steve Danehy, a Pfizer spokesman, said Thursday that the Rocky Mount team is “working diligently to address and assess the situation,” but did not provide any details. The company said its employees escaped the hurricane without serious injuries.
Pfizer is expected to report its findings to the Food and Drug Administration, which is tracking shortages.
“We are closely following the situation as it develops and working with the company to understand the extent of the damage and any possible impact on the country’s drug supply,” said Chanaba Tantipanchachai, a spokeswoman for the agency.
The Rocky Mount facility, founded in 1968, employs 4,500 people and has 24 bottling lines and 22 bottling lines. Although not as large as Pfizer’s manufacturing complex in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the North Carolina site spans 1.4 million square feet of manufacturing space. Medicines made on site are also shipped to Japan, Canada, Brazil and other countries.
The specific products made in the Pfizer plant—and the market share they contain—are not usually public information. However, the company It sells dozens of injectable itemsincluding intravenous antibiotics and anti-seizure drugs used in brain surgery and even an antidote for coral snake venom.
There were already shortages of many Pfizer drugs before the hurricane: About 130 products marketed to hospitals were listed as “out of stock” and about 100 others were “limited supply,” according to the company’s listing. From 660 products.
Pfizer has other industries the plants in Kansas, New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin where the company could shift some production to relieve any shortages caused by the destruction of Rocky Mount.
Pfizer has a track record of building in some iterations so that products are manufactured in more than one location, said Somi Saha, senior vice president at Premier, a company that provides drug contracting services to hospitals.
She added that if the storm damage was confined to the warehouse and did not affect production schedules in factories, this could mitigate potential shortages.
Dr. Janio pointed to the shortage of other medicines caused by the disasters in the production areas.
Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico in 2017, leaving hospitals scrambling for IV bags. Another occurred last year when an area of China hard hit by Covid had a lapse in contrast dye production for CT scans and other medical images. And in recent months, doctors have warned that the survival rates of some cancer patients are in jeopardy because production was halted at a factory in India after the Food and Drug Administration cited major quality gaps.
With worrisome shortages affecting many lives—and leading to stockpiling and bartering among advocates who trade and find scarce drugs for the most desperate—policy experts, lawmakers and federal officials have discussed solutions in recent weeks.
On Thursday, Senate lawmakers passed a pandemic preparedness bill from a key health committee. It had provisions intended to stop shortages and increased reporting by drug companies to alert the FDA of conditions that might lead to shortages so the agency can help avoid them.
The bill would also require a report from the Food and Drug Administration within 90 days of passing the legislation about the agency’s ability to handle shortages and whether it needs more help from lawmakers.
However, the naturally occurring hurricane provides a stark reminder of the need to better manage shortages.
“This reinforces the need for resilience in our supply chain and a real focus on preparedness, not just for the next pandemic, but for any unforeseen circumstance that triggers shocks in our supply chain,” said Dr. Saha.