Heparin Drug Shortage Conservation Strategies

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Heparin is the anticoagulant of choice when a rapid anticoagulant is indicated: Onset of action is immediate when administered IV as a bolus.1 The major anticoagulant effect of heparin is mediated by heparin/antithrombin (AT) interaction. Heparin/AT inactivates factor IIa (thrombin) and factors Xa, IXa, XIa, and XIIa. Heparin is approved for multiple indications, such as venous thromboembolism (VTE) treatment and prophylaxis of medical and surgical patients; stroke prevention in atrial fibrillation (AF); acute coronary syndrome (ACS); vascular and cardiac surgeries; and various interventional procedures (eg, diagnostic angiography and percutaneous coronary intervention [PCI]). It also is used as an anticoagulant in blood transfusions, extracorporeal circulation, and for maintaining patency of central vascular access devices (CVADs).

About 60% of the crude heparin used to manufacture heparin in the US originates in China, derived from porcine mucosa. African swine fever, a contagious virus with no cure, has eliminated about 25% to 35% of China’s pig population, or about 150 million pigs. In July 2019, members of the US House of Representatives Committee on Energy and Commerce sent a letter to the US Food and Drug Administration asking for details on the potential impact of African swine fever on the supply of heparin.2

The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) heath care system is currently experiencing a shortage of heparin vials and syringes. It is unclear when resolution of this shortage will occur as it could resolve within several weeks or as late as January 2020.3 Although vials and syringes are the current products that are affected, it is possible the shortage may eventually include IV heparin bags as well.

Since the foremost objective of VA health care providers is to provide timely access to medications for veterans, strategies to conserve unfractionated heparin (UfH) must be used since it is a first-line therapy where few evidence-based alternatives exist. Conservation strategies may include drug rationing, therapeutic substitution, and compounding of needed products using the limited stock available in the pharmacy.4 It is important that all staff are educated on facility strategies in order to be familiar with alternatives and limit the potential for near misses, adverse events, and provider frustration.

In shortage situations, the VA-Pharmacy Benefits Management (PBM) defers decisions regarding drug preservation, processes to shift to viable alternatives, and the best practice for safe transitions to local facilities and their subject matter experts.5 At the VA Tennessee Valley Healthcare System, a 1A, tertiary, dual campus health care system, a pharmacy task force has formed to track drug shortages impacting the facility’s efficiencies and budgets. This group communicates with the Pharmacy and Therapeutics committee about potential risks to patient care and develops shortage briefs (following an SBAR [situation, background, assessment, recommendation] design) generally authored and championed by at least 1 clinical pharmacy specialist and supervising physicians who are field experts. Prior to dissemination, the SBAR undergoes a rapid peer-review process.

To date, VA PBM has not issued specific guidance on how pharmacists should proceed in case of a shortage. However, we recommend strategies that may be considered for implementation during a potential UfH shortage. For example, pharmacists can use therapeutic alternatives for which best available evidence suggests no disadvantage.4 The Table lists alternative agents according to indication and patient-specific considerations that may preclude use. Existing UfH products may also be used for drug compounding (eg, use current stock to provide an indicated aliquot) to meet the need of prioritized patients.4 In addition, we suggest prioritizing current UfH/heparinized saline for use for the following groups of patients4:


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