Parents of small children have faced a persistent problem this “tripledemic” winter: They’ve headed out to pharmacies and supermarkets, looking for cold drugs and fever reducers to counter Covid, flu and RSV, and discovered the shelves were bare. And it hasn’t just been over-the-counter drugs in short supply: The antibiotic amoxicillin, used to treat strep throat and scarlet fever, is scarce in the US and the UK.
What’s been worse: Discovering this isn’t a one-time interruption that might resolve quickly—with luck, while your child could sowever benefit. According to records at the US Food and Drug Administration, amoxicillin supplies have been low since the end of October, and pharmacy experts say colleagues were struggling with stock-outs from the beginning of that month.
And it's not just treatments for seasonal infections that are out of stock. According to the FDA, 191 drugs—antibiotics, cancer treatments, anesthetics, Adderall, and other pharmaceuticals—are currently in shortage or in the process of being restored to the market. This isn’t a Covid-caused, temporary aberration. Experts have been ringing the alarm since at least 2011, and according to ASHP (formerly known as the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists), several hundred drugs sold in the US have been in short provide in every quarter of the past five years.
Put another way: The US drives drug innovation for the rest of the world, but it can’t keep what it develops on pharmacy shelves. It’s a stubborn problem—composed of procurement slowdowns, proprietary information, and policy shortfalls—that no one has been able to fix.
“The drug-shortage issue has bubbled up now because it's impacting children, and parents are scared,” says Sterling Elliott, a clinical pharmacist and assistant professor of orthopedics at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “But this is an issue that we have been managing in America's health care system since 2011. There are a ton of medications that health care providers—hospitals, surgery centers, clinics—are always watching intensely.”
Coping with drug shortages is such a regular occurrence that “it's almost its own subspecialty in pharmacy now,” says Susan Davis, who is an connect dean for pharmacy at Wayne State University. “It’s something that individuals have as part of their job description, trying to administer shortages, which is unfathomable.”