Pfizer is playing a new role in the dramas that often surround drug shortages. While manufacturing issues at its Hospira unit have sometimes been responsible for hospital drug shortages, Pfizer is now trying to fill a serious shortfall after Teva Pharmaceutical discontinued production of a chemo drug used to cure children of serious cancers.
It is ramping up production of vincristine—often used with other drugs to treat leukemia, brain tumors and lymphomas—after Teva in July notified the FDA that it had made the “business decision” to discontinue production. Its move has left pediatric oncologists scrambling to find supplies.
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“Due to a competitor’s outage, we are expediting additional shipments of this critical product over the next few weeks to support three to four times our typical production output. Pfizer is committed to providing this important medicine to patients,” Pfizer said today in an email.
The New York Times reports that vincristine is so widely used that the shortage is affecting clinical trials as well as treatments.
“Vincristine is our water. It’s our bread and butter. I can’t think of a disease in childhood cancer that doesn’t use vincristine,” Yoram Unguru, M.D., a pediatric oncologist at the Herman and Walter Samuelson Children’s Hospital at Sinai in Baltimore, tells the NYT.
Teva did not respond to the newspaper about its decision to discontinue vincristine, a drug that has been on and off the FDA shortage list for years. With margins on generics having gotten very thin in recent years, many drugmakers have given up production of products where they are not dominant in the marketplace. There are currently 202 drug discontinuations listed on the FDA Drug Shortages website.
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Teva also has been closing many plants as part of its attempt to cut $3 billion in annual costs in an effort to return to financial stability after the company found itself in dire economic straits several years ago. Often with a plant closure, it can been easier to give up certain drugs than move production to another facility.
Playing the hero in a drug shortage is a turnabout for Pfizer, which has been under pressure to upgrade several plants after manufacturing issues left certain drugs in very short supply. Problems at a Hospira plant in Kansas led to shortages at hospitals of some injected pain meds. Issues at another Pfizer facility that makes injectors resulted in shortages of Mylan’s popular EpiPen for treating anaphylactic shock.