Deadly drug overdoses hit a record high in 2020, killing more than 93,000 people in the U.S., according to preliminary data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July. Now, a shortage of naloxone — a drug that reverses opioid overdoses — could make the problem even worse.
Pfizer is at the root of the issue, the drug policy publication Filter first reported. The pharmaceutical company is the sole manufacturer of naloxone for the Opioid Safety and Naloxone Network Buyer’s Club, one of the largest naloxone distributors in the U.S.
The buyer’s club consists of more than 100 harm reduction programs, which provide naloxone to communities at a reduced price. It’s able to do so because Pfizer offers naloxone to the club at a discount, making it much more accessible than if the club were to buy it from other manufacturers.
That’s important because harm reduction groups distribute the majority of the nation’s naloxone. For example, between 2017 and 2020, they distributed 3.7 million doses, according to data from the National Alliance of State & Territorial AIDS Directors cited in the Washington Post.
But currently, Pfizer’s naloxone supply is “depleted,” after the company halted production of single-dose injectable naloxone in April due to a manufacturing issue. As a result, the buyer’s club is seeing “unprecedented scarcity,” according to the Post.
In fact, one organizer for the buyer’s club told the publication it had 250,000 doses of naloxone on backorder, estimating that the current shortage could lead to 11,000 or more overdose deaths.
Meanwhile, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) told the Post that the naloxone supply available through other manufacturers should be “sufficient” to meet nationwide demand; however, others argue that naloxone not sold by Pfizer is much less affordable — thus out of reach for many harm reduction programs.
As for when the shortage will be fixed, Pfizer said it might not be able to meet demand again until February. While the company declined to tell the Post what led to the manufacturing issue responsible for the shortage, it did say that the problem is unrelated to coronavirus vaccine production.