Tornado sweeps through Pfizer property in North Carolina, damaging drug supplies
A tornado on Wednesday caused extensive damage at a Pfizer drug manufacturing site in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, endangering vital supplies to hospitals across the country.
The company estimated that a quarter of the injectable drugs it supplies to US hospitals were made on the Rocky Mount site, including drugs used in surgeries and other procedures to relieve pain, keep patients calm and fight infection.
Although the company has yet to disclose the extent of the storm’s impact, video footage of the site and interviews with the Nash County Sheriff and people who were briefed on the damage indicate the tornado did the worst damage at the company’s warehouse.
Pfizer on Thursday declined to comment on the drugs affected or the proportion of drug supplies destroyed by the tornado, which could be significant, as many of these drugs required careful manufacturing and handling to ensure their sterility.
It was also unclear how much the destruction would exacerbate existing nationwide drug shortages, which have hit a 10-year high in recent months. Hospitals are on high alert as the low-cost generic drugs manufactured on-site are already among the hardest-hit products on the market.
“From a doctor’s perspective, I’m just holding my breath,” said Michael Ganio, executive director of the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists.
The tornado swept through a 16-mile stretch of the Rocky Mount area about 50 miles east of Raleigh around 12:30 p.m. Wednesday. According to a National Weather Service summary, it snapped trees at the base and knocked over houses 20 meters from their foundations. The tornado reached wind speeds of up to 150 miles per hour before tearing off large sections of the metal roof of a Pfizer building and overturning large trucks in the parking lot. Sixteen people were injured, but no fatalities were reported.
Several people said the tornado did most of the damage at a company warehouse; The impact on the manufacturing facility — and its ability to continue producing drugs — is not yet clear, according to Mittal Sutaria, senior vice president of pharmacy contracts at Vicient, a provider of drug contracts for hospitals.
She said Pfizer had teams on site to assess the damage.
dr Sutaria, who said Vicient has been in contact with Pfizer, added that the Rocky Mount site manufactures anesthetic products, as well as fentanyl and morphine used in IV fluids to treat pain. It does too Antibiotics to fight severe infections and muscle blockers like succinylcholine, which are also used in surgery.
Keith Stone, the sheriff of Nash County, where Rocky Mount is located, told local news reporters Wednesday that much of the Pfizer building had splintered, the roof collapsed and up to 50,000 pallets of drugs destroyed.
About 100 vehicles were also damaged, including forklifts, which were scattered across nearby railroad tracks, Sheriff Stone said in an interview Thursday. “It’s just amazing what can appear so quickly, do so much damage, and go away so quickly,” he said.
Steve Danehy, a Pfizer spokesman, said Thursday that the company’s Rocky Mount team is “working very hard to address and assess the situation,” but gave no details. The company said its employees survived the tornado with no serious injuries.
Pfizer is expected to report its findings to the Food and Drug Administration, which tracks shortages.
“We are closely monitoring the evolving situation and are working with the company to understand the extent of the damage and possible impact on the country’s drug supply,” said Chanapa Tantibanchachai, a spokeswoman for the agency.
Established in 1968, the Rocky Mount facility employs 4,500 people and has 24 bottling lines and 22 packaging lines. While not as large as Pfizer’s manufacturing complex in Kalamazoo, Michigan, the North Carolina site covers 1.4 million square feet of manufacturing space. The drugs manufactured at the site are also shipped to Japan, Canada, Brazil and other countries.
The specific products made at the Pfizer plant — and the market share they account for — are not typically public information. However, the company sells dozens of injectable items, including intravenous antibiotics, anti-seizure drugs used in brain surgery, and even an antidote to coral snake venom.
Many Pfizer drugs were already in short supply before the tornado: About 130 products marketed to hospitals were listed as “out of stock” and about 100 others were “limited stock,” according to the company’s list of 660 products.
Pfizer has other manufacturing facilities in Kansas, New York, Massachusetts and Wisconsin, where the company could potentially move some production to address any shortages caused by the destruction of Rocky Mount.
Soumi Saha, senior vice president at Premier, a company that provides contract drug services to hospitals, said Pfizer has a strong track record of building some redundancies so products are manufactured at more than one site.
If the storm damage is confined to the warehouse and doesn’t affect production schedules at manufacturing plants, it could mitigate potential shortages, she said.
dr Ganio recalled other drug shortages caused by disasters in manufacturing areas.
Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico in 2017, leaving hospitals desperate for IV bags. Another incident occurred last year when a failure in the production of contrast media for CT scans and other medical images occurred in a region of China badly hit by Covid. And in recent months, doctors have warned that some cancer patients’ chances of survival are at risk because production at a manufacturing facility in India was shut down after the FDA cited serious quality defects.
With the worrying shortages affecting so many people’s lives — and which have led to hoarding of certain drugs and bartering between advocates who trade and procure scarce drugs for the most desperate — policy experts, lawmakers and federal officials have debated solutions for the past few weeks.
On Thursday, Senate lawmakers passed a pandemic preparedness bill from a key health committee. It included provisions aimed at reducing shortages and increasing reporting from drug manufacturers to alert the FDA to circumstances that could lead to shortages so the agency could help prevent them.
The bill also requires the FDA to provide a report within 90 days of the law’s passage on the agency’s ability to deal with bottlenecks and whether it needs more help from lawmakers.
Nonetheless, the natural occurrence of a tornado has highlighted the need for better bottleneck management.
“This reinforces the need for resilience in our supply chain and a real focus on preparedness, not just for the next pandemic,” said Dr. Saha, “but also for any unforeseen circumstances that lead to disruptions in our supply chain.”