Exclusive: Opioid supply crunch for U.S. coronavirus patients prompts appeal to relax limits

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U.S. doctors running out of narcotics needed for COVID-19 patients on ventilators are asking the federal government to raise production limits for drugmakers, according to a letter seen by Reuters, after national quotas had been tightened to address the opioid addiction crisis.

The global coronavirus pandemic has led to more than 5,300 deaths nationwide, with over 227,000 confirmed cases, according to a Reuters tally, and has sent states and the federal government scrambling to obtain enough ventilators to treat patients struggling to get oxygen.

At the same time, hospitals are churning through drugs, including injectable fentanyl, used to safely place patients on ventilators and keep them sedated so their lungs can heal.

The U.S. government sets annual limits on how much tightly regulated narcotics can be produced by pharmaceutical companies, and then allocates portions to various manufacturers. Amid an outcry over opioid abuse, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reduced the overall fentanyl quota by over 30% for 2020.

In a letter to the DEA on Tuesday, groups including the American Medical Association and the American Society of Health-System Pharmacists (ASHP) said supplies of injectable fentanyl, morphine and hydromorphone are already in short supply and asked for increased company allocations.

“We appreciate DEA’s work to protect against diversion and maintain control over the flow of opioids into our communities,” they wrote. “However, during this unprecedented health crisis, hospitals must have sufficient (drug) supply to treat patients.”

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