Pfizer restarts drug production following Rocky Mount tornado. But supply risk remains.

More than two months after a 150 mph tornado ripped through the Pfizer plant in Rocky Mount, raising nationwide concerns of medicine supply shortages, the pharmaceutical giant says it has restarted most of its manufacturing lines.

“This expedited restart is a proud achievement for the Rocky Mount team; however, it is only the first step toward full recovery for the plant,” the company stated Monday.

Pfizer is producing around 13 medicines on the restarted lines, prioritizing drugs based on their inventory and patient needs. Yet, the company acknowledged the effects of the tornado will likely impact drug supplies until at least the middle of next year. The 1.4 million-square-foot facility in Nash County produced nearly 8% of all sterile injectables used in U.S. hospitals, including neuromuscular blockers, anti-infectives and anesthesia.

Drone video from The News & Observer showed significant damage to the facility. The campus’s warehouse, which stores raw materials and finished medicines awaiting quality checks, was most impacted, the company said, but manufacturing lines were also compromised.

“There are several medicines that are made here exclusively, that are not made otherwise in the Pfizer network,” company CEO Albert Bourla told reporters two days after the tornado.

On Monday, the New York-based firm said “full production” should be reached at the Rocky Mount site’s three manufacturing areas by the end of 2023, but that “some medicines might not be in full supply until next year.”

Pfizer defines “full supply” as enough inventory to serve past demand projections plus multiple weeks of reserves.

A tornado caused major damage to the Pfizer pharmaceutical plant near Rocky Mount, N.C. Wednesday afternoon, July 19, 2023.
A tornado caused major damage to the Pfizer pharmaceutical plant near Rocky Mount, N.C. Wednesday afternoon, July 19, 2023.

Triangle hospitals see little impact so far

Rocky Mount straddles Nash and Edgecombe counties, about 50 miles northeast of Raleigh. According to the National Weather Service, the tornado hit on July 19 as an EF3, meaning it reached speeds of 150 mph.

None of the roughly 2,250 employees who were working at the plant when the tornado touched down suffered injuries, company officials say.

Opened in 1968, the Pfizer site runs 24 hours a day and employs 3,200 people, making it among the region’s largest private employers. After the natural disaster, the company planned to shift drug production to its nine other U.S. manufacturing sites, which includes a 230-acre facility in Sanford.

Triangle-area hospital systems say the fallout from the tornado has, so far, been minimum to nonexistent.

“The only impact we’ve had so far is having to use Pfizer’s emergency ordering process for certain products,” said Alan Wolf, a spokesperson for UNC Health.

Wolf added this process has allowed UNC Health to avoid “any impact on patient care.”

Similarly, WakeMed spokesperson Kristin Kelly said “there has been no operational impact” on patients.

Vizient, a Texas-based health care consulting firm that communicated with Pfizer in the days after the tornado, said it’s hard to assess what impact the events in Rocky Mount have had on the medicine supply.

“While it’s difficult to measure the impact of the tornado on drug shortages, we are hopeful that the re-start of production will help minimize any impact to Vizient providers and patients,” said Mittal Sutaria, Vizient senior vice president of Contract and Program Services, Pharmacy.

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