The outbreak of COVID-19 has called greater attention to the United States’ reliance on foreign drug manufacturers. Much of the drug manufacturing for the U.S. market happens overseas—and drugs for treating COVID-19 are no exception.
Food and Drug Administration inspections of foreign and domestic drug manufacturers are critical to ensuring drug safety and effectiveness.
But FDA began to postpone almost all inspections of foreign manufacturing establishments in March 2020 due to COVID-19. The Government Accountability Office testified that this lack of foreign inspections removes a critical source of information about the quality of drugs manufactured for the U.S. market.
In December 2019, GAO found that a growing number of foreign drug manufacturing inspections conducted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) were in China and India (43 percent in 2018), where most establishments that manufacture drugs for the United States were located. In fiscal year 2015, FDA, for the first time, conducted more foreign inspections than domestic inspections. However, from fiscal year 2016 through 2018, both foreign and domestic inspections decreased—by about 10 percent and 13 percent, respectively. FDA officials attributed the decline, in part, to vacancies among investigators available to conduct inspections. In March 2020, FDA announced that, due to Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), it was postponing almost all inspections of foreign manufacturing establishments. While FDA has indicated it has other tools to ensure the safety of the U.S. drug supply, the lack of foreign inspections removes a critical source of information about the quality of drugs manufactured for the U.S. market.
GAO also found that FDA had vacancies among each of the groups of investigators who conduct foreign inspections. FDA had 190 investigators in the United States who conduct the majority of foreign inspections, but an additional 58 positions were vacant. At the time of GAO’s December 2019 testimony, FDA was in the process filling 26 of these vacancies, with 32 remaining. However, according to FDA officials, it could be 2 to 3 years before new staff are experienced enough to conduct foreign inspections. FDA also faced persistent vacancies among investigators in its foreign offices.
GAO further found in December 2019 that FDA investigators identified persistent challenges conducting foreign inspections, raising questions about the equivalence of foreign to domestic inspections. Specifically, GAO found:
- While FDA inspections performed in the United States were almost always unannounced, FDA’s practice of preannouncing foreign inspections up to 12 weeks in advance may have given manufacturers the opportunity to fix problems ahead of the inspection. Investigators from FDA’s China and India offices had conducted some unannounced inspections, but these staff do not perform most of the inspections in these countries (27 percent and 10 percent, respectively).
- FDA was not generally providing translators on foreign inspections. Rather, FDA continued to rely on translators provided by the foreign establishments being inspected, which investigators said raised questions about the accuracy of information FDA investigators collected. For example, one investigator said there was more risk of conflict of interest if the establishment used its own employees to translate. In addition, the establishment representative providing the translation may be someone who does not have the technical language needed, which can make it harder to communicate with establishment staff and facilitate the inspection.
- The overseas travel schedule can present challenges for FDA’s domestically based investigators, who conduct the majority of foreign inspections. Domestically based investigators told us there is little flexibility for them to extend foreign inspections during an overseas trip. The inspections they conduct on an overseas trip are scheduled back-to-back in 3-week trips and may involve three different countries. Therefore, extending one inspection would limit the amount of time the investigator has to complete their other scheduled inspections. FDA officials said that inspections conducted by investigators based in China or India (and domestic inspections in the United States) are generally scheduled one at a time and can thus more easily be extended if the investigator needs additional time to pursue potential deficiencies. However, these in-country investigators are not involved in the majority of FDA inspections conducted in China or India.