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Deadly Pig Disease Sparks Fear of a Heart Drug Shortage

     

Photographer: Daniel Acker/Bloomberg

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With African swine fever wiping out a quarter of the world’s pigs, primarily in China, doctors and drugmakers around the world are sounding the alarm about a possible prolonged shortage of heparin, a critically important blood thinner. The drug, derived from pig intestines, is widely used to treat heart attacks and prevent deadly blood clots. China has been the primary source of the medicine, and the crisis there highlights a need to develop alternate supplies.

Heparin is a naturally derived, sugar-based molecule that’s administered by injection or infusion to prevent blood from coagulating and causing vessel-blocking clots that can starve organs of critical oxygen. Discovered more than a century ago, today some 10 million to 12 million people in the U.S. alone are treated with heparin each year, with the drug’s global sales exceeding 200 tons, or $5 billion, annually. A dose though is inexpensive, costing less than a packet of bandages.