Albuterol factory closure prompts concerns over ongoing asthma drug shortage

FILE - In this photo illustration lie two asthma inhalers in a handbag on Feb. 3, 2021 in Bonn, Germany. (Photo by Ute Grabowsky/Photothek via Getty Images)

Concerns are growing over a common asthma drug – already in short supply – after one of the last major manufacturers in the U.S. shut down its operations.

Albuterol is used to prevent and treat difficulty breathing, wheezing, coughing, and chest tightness caused by lung diseases like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), according to the National Library of Medicine

It’s one of the most commonly prescribed medications in the U.S. and has been on the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s shortage list since last fall.

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In February, Illinois-based pharmaceutical company Akorn Operating Co. abruptly closed all of its operations, including its out-of-state locations in New Jersey, New York and Switzerland, and laid off hundreds of workers amid plans to file for bankruptcy.

The company developed, manufactured and marketed a wide array of branded and generic prescription drugs, including medication like Albuterol, as well as eye drops, injectables, and others, according to its website. It also developed drugs for animals.

Specifically, its Illinois facility was licensed to make liquid albuterol, which is used by hospitals for nebulizers, a small machine that turns liquid medicine into a mist that can be easily inhaled, according to the Washington Post

The closure of that facility leaves only one remaining U.S. supplier of liquid albuterol, supply chain analysts and executives told the news outlet, while another pharmacy supplier was rushing to build a second supply.

Profit margins are lower on many generic drugs, compared to their brand-name counterparts, and as a result – they have fewer manufacturers, experts told the Washington Post. If one manufacturer closes or fails to pump out its normal supply, the effect can be more noticeable.

Prior to Akorn closing its facilities, the company had already stopped shipping out its 20-milliliter bottles of liquid albuterol, the Washington Post reported, citing Premier, a group purchasing organization (GPO) for major U.S. hospitals.

Premier said Akorn's closures could prolong the shortages into 2023.

For its part, the FDA acknowledged that the closure of any drug manufacturer can impact the availability of the products they produce.

"The FDA recognizes the impact that reduced availability of certain medicines may have on health care providers and patients," the agency said in a statement to FOX Television Stations. "The FDA is reviewing all drugs affected by this closure and is working with the other manufacturers to understand the supply nationwide." 

The agency added that if the approved manufacturers cannot meet market demand, it will add any additional affected medicines to its shortage list and "continue working to resolve or lessen the impact of those shortages using all the tools we have available."

The FDA can take a number of actions to address potential and ongoing drug shortages, according to its website. This can include working with manufacturers to increase production, extending the expiration date on existing drug supplies, and seeking out alternatives from supply outside the U.S.

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This story was reported from Cincinnati.