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SC pharmaceutical makers up production of respiratory medications

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Business at Nephron Pharmaceuticals Corp., a respiratory drug maker headquartered in West Columbia, spiked last week, with orders up 48 percent. Provided/Nephron Pharmaceuticals.

COLUMBIA — Two South Carolina companies that make drugs used to treat respiratory illnesses and symptoms, like those experienced by people infected with the coronavirus, have upped their production amid increased demand.

Nephron Pharmaceuticals in West Columbia and Ritedose Corp. make generic versions of almost all the respiratory drugs used in the United States, including albuterol sulfate and ipratropium bromide, according to the CEOs of the two companies.

Business at Nephron spiked last week, CEO Lou Kennedy said, with orders up 48 percent. The CEO of Ritedose, Jody Chastain, said his company has received a slight increase in demand.

Both Nephron and Ritedose typically make 80 million to 85 million doses of respiratory drugs per month.

As of March 17, Nephron already had made 87 million for the month, Kennedy said.

Dr. Helmut Albrecht, chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of South Carolina and Palmetto Health USC Medical Group, said he has not seen an increased need for the medications, but said it may be possible doctors are using them to treat coronavirus symptoms.

"If you have asthma or chronic bronchitis, various outside stimuli, mostly allergies and infections, can trigger bronchospasms," which these medications treat, he said. "Coronavirus is certainly an infection that can trigger these in susceptible (people) even though we have not seen many problems with obstructive disease in our initial patients."

Dr. Michael Spandorfer, a pulmonologist at Roper St. Francis in Charleston, said physicians have actually pulled away from nebulized versions of these medications, like those made in Columbia.

Nebulizers, which create a medicated mist to be inhaled, can disperse COVID-19 droplets further, putting health care providers treating patients at increased risk of exposure. Delivering those medications through inhalers is preferred but those have become more scarce, Spandorfer said.

“I just think there’s been a mad rush on all the medications from what I’ve seen,” he said.

MUSC echoed Albrecht in a statement saying the drugs are often used to alleviate respiratory symptoms and could be used on COVID-19 symptoms "when medically appropriate."

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Chastain said Ritedose has upped production by 40 million doses per month in the past week on its nine lines of respiratory drugs to reach the manufacturing facility’s full 120 million doses per month capacity, which he expects will shore up the supply chain. The company also keeps 10 to 12 weeks of inventory on hand that it can dip into as needed.

Kennedy said her company had about four months of back supply.

“We knew early on when we saw this, it would likely spread,” she said.

Nephron has the necessary federal approvals for eight production lines that can make as much as 110 million doses, Kennedy said. But the current demand pace would call for the company to be able to make 147 million doses.

Kennedy would like to make more.

The company has another six lines it relocated to South Carolina from its former plant in Florida, but it still needs U.S. Food and Drug Administration approval to use them to make respiratory drugs. A meeting had been scheduled for later this month to discuss what inspections might be needed, but Kennedy is asking the FDA to put those machines into operation now.

Kennedy said Nephron has already started hiring employees to run those lines, which could each add another 18.5 million doses to monthly production. She said the added capacity would put Nephron in a position to produce all on the necessary respiratory drugs to meet demand in normal times.

Both companies are also producing hand sanitizer. Chastain and Kennedy said they will start by distributing to their employees. From there, they both said they would consider donating to charities, with Kennedy specifying churches and The Salvation Army as recipients. Kennedy said hospitals have also been asking about purchasing the product when it’s available.

Ritedose employs 350 people at its 270,000-square-foot facility northeast of the city. Kennedy said Nephron has almost 1,200 full-time employees, as well as 860 teachers who work part time packaging in-demand sterile drugs. 

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