Novartis, Novo, Glaxo and others hunker down as hurricane sweeps in

As Hurricane Florence threatened the southeastern U.S., drugmakers took steps to keep supplies and employees safe. (NOAA)

As Hurricane Florence bore down on the U.S. Southeast today, drugmakers were taking steps to keep medicine supplies flowing and employees out of harms way.

GlaxoSmithKline closed its inhaler plant in Zebulon, North Carolina, today and said it does not expect to resume operations until Sunday. But the company said it does not expect supply interruptions to patients.

Like all of the other companies contacted, it emphasized the need to protect and support employees. “Our first priority is the health and safety of our employees and continuous supply of medicines to customers,” the company said in an email. 

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Mary Anne Rhyne, director of corporate communications said, “We have continuity plans in place and they have been activated for our manufacturing plant in Zebulon and our commercial hub in Research Triangle Park."

The steps were taken as Hurricane Florence was set to make landfall, with winds greater than 120 mph, and rain enough to cause devastating flooding. The hurricane was downgraded on Wednesday from a catastrophic Category 4 with maximum sustained winds of 130 mph to a Category 3 hurricane, with maximum sustained winds of 125 mph, according to the National Hurricane Center, but is still slated to produce "life-threatening" storm surges.

It is the second time in a year that pharma production has been affected by hurricanes after storms wreaked havoc in Puerto Rico last fall.

RELATED: Novo Nordisk's massive operation in North Carolina getting even bigger

Novo Nordisk, which is building a massive site API facility in Clayton, North Carolina, where it already has a finished products plant, said it expected the construction site to be closed until at least Friday. The 833,000-square-foot project has a facility footprint of 417,639 square feet, roughly the size of seven football fields. It is located next to the finished products-manufacturing plant that is 457,000 square feet.  

“We are monitoring the situation closely, and we have plans in place to ensure continued operation of our critical production areas as long as it is safe to do so,” a spokesperson said today.

Novartis has communicated safety preparations to approximately 2,700 associates and contractors in the storm’s path and has closed a plant in Wilson, North Carolina, that it said last week will be sold to India’s Aurbindo as part of a $900 million deal. The Swiss drugmaker said the site was closed Wednesday evening and plans are to reopen Sunday night and resume production on Monday.

Novartis has shifted product out of potentially impacted areas so that it can can maintain supplies flowing to patients.

RELATED: Pfizer suspending operations at U.S. injectables plant as hurricane approaches

In that regard, one plant that is of particular concern to the healthcare system is the Pfizer’s sterile injectables plant at Rocky Mount, North Carolina. U.S. hospitals are already suffering shortages of many sterile injectable drugs, including pain drugs made at another Pfizer plant in McPherson, Kansas. The interruption in supplies of others would be a problem for healthcare providers.

"Pfizer has contingency plans in place to ensure the continuity of supply, and mitigate interruptions during natural disasters," the company said. 

Merck & Co., has three manufacturing facilities in North Carolina located in Durham and Wilson as well as a corporate office in Charlotte. It said a plant in Elkton, Virginia, may also be in the path of the storm. All of the manufacturing facilities in North Carolina and Virginia are shutting down, a spokesperson explained. She said that the company has already adjusted shipments to maintain adequate product supplies and "acquired additional power generators in case they are needed."

It was the interruption of power that was a huge issue for drugmakers in Puerto Rico last fall when hurricanes ripped through the island. It took months to repair power infrastructure and keeping fuel flowing to power generators also became and issue. Among others, the storm damge interrupted production at three saline plants operated there by Baxter International, adding to a national shortage of the commodity product.