Ibuprofen suppliers struggle to meet demand

Ibuprofen shortages are breaking out in China today. Buying limits are already common, but the shelves remain empty.

Photo from CFP

Photo from CFP



Ibuprofen, a medicine cabinet mainstay, is a rare commodity in China today. Buying limits are common, but store shelves are empty. Some cities have even asked pharmacies to tear open packages and dispense single pills. Although production is increasing, it will be some time before shelves are stocked again.

Johnson & Johnson, maker of Motrin (Ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen), said its factory in China is operating at maximum capacity, and that it now prioritizes China for distribution in Asia.

SSY Group Limited, a Hong Kong-listed drug manufacturer, issued a statement last weekend that Shijiazhuang No.4 Pharmaceutical, a wholly owned subsidiary, has signed a letter of intent with a “well-known pharmaceutical company in China,” which will subcontract the production of 2.5 billion ibuprofen tablets and 65 million paracetamols.

Shandong Xinhua Pharmaceutical Co., with the capacity to produce 8000 tons of ibuprofen said earlier this month that it has been making every effort to meet demand for Covid relief drugs, including ibuprofen and Vitamin C. 

The government included ibuprofen in its drug bulk-buying program in August 2020. According to the plan then, it would buy 450 million tablets every year, indicating a projected demand much smaller than the 1-2.5 billion subcontracted to Shijiazhuang No.4 Pharmaceuticals alone.

To make 400 million ibuprofen tablets, by China’s current daily consumption, a drug company will need to buy 400 tons of API, which even some of the largest suppliers need at least a month to produce. Assuming no shipping delays and no labor shortages – a big assumption given many workers are out sick – it will be at least 40 days before a day’s consumption hits the shelf.

People familiar with the industry also warned that many suppliers could not instantly turn things up a notch. Demand for ibuprofen within China had been low, so distribution was redirected to exports.

Some have even let their licenses expire. Some need to reconfigure their facilities to new dosages. Even if everything is ready to go, drug makers can only increase production by either extending working hours or adding new equipment, both requiring enough workers.