Your views on drug shortages, political representation and the mysterious ways of water

DHEA pandemic shortage?

BBC news recently highlighted a growing shortage of muscle relaxants, also known as neuromuscular blocking agents (NMBs). These pharmaceuticals are essential for anyone requiring ventilation and their continued supply will be critical for hospitals to deal with Covid-19.

We are a group of largely retired and late-career synthetic organic chemists that researched and discovered steroidal NMBs and related products for use in hospitals. To our knowledge these pharmaceuticals are only produced outside of the UK (probably at the Diosynth/Merck plant in the Netherlands and by generic companies) and a continued supply may therefore be problematic during the pandemic. To alleviate NMB issues associated with prolonged ventilation we would be keen to offer our knowledge and expertise to any coordinated response by the RSC and/or government.

The following points merit consideration: stockpiling dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) or epiandrosterone, the raw starting materials for synthesis of steroidal NMBs; new production and packaging of NMBs within the UK; and employing longer-lasting NMBs like pancuronium bromide to treat Covid-19 patients.

The pandemic is now highlighting the cost to the UK of losing our pharma R&D capability over the last 30 years. We hope the RSC will forward this letter to the relevant government authority for consideration, and collate this with related examples to convince the government of the need to invest in pharma R&D and manufacturing, and more broadly life sciences in the post-pandemic world. Can the RSC do more to win such arguments in the next 30 years?

Niall Hamilton CChem MRSC
On behalf of Organon Synthetic Chemists

Political debate

Bill Edwards is right, there are very few qualified chemists within parliament (Chemistry World, May 2020, p4), and I haven’t tried to check the background to every MP, but Thérèse Coffey sits on the front bench of the government and has a PhD in chemistry. She has replied to a recent enquiry I made on wood burners, and understood the science well. I would love to read her thesis!

Bill refers to R&D which implies the application of chemical products, and even fewer scientists either as MPs or other walks of life, have worked within industry.

Sometimes the government has to make policies on products that do not exist. However the research to find a vaccine to protect us from Covid-19 is surely worthwhile.

Stuart Bird MRSC
Ebford, UK

There is some truth in what Bill Edwards suggests when he writes about the attitudes of politicians towards R&D; I have long contended that candidates for parliamentary office should have to demonstrate a credible understanding of some aspect of science and mathematics before seeking election. But to be fair, parliamentarians have to make choices over the value of scientific contribution. The response to the current Covid-19 pandemic is a case in point. Do MPs vote to maintain the lockdown to save lives or risk the inevitability of more deaths from a failed economy?

I too would like to see more scientists in parliament, but would have concerns about their loyalty to scientific ethics or to the party whip. At one time the RSC employed lobbyists to represent the RSC in parliament with intention to preserve the integrity of the sciences of chemistry. I do not see this anymore.

Chemistry is the basis of everything. May I suggest that the RSC reconsiders its role not only to advance and protect the science of chemistry and those sciences based on it, but to engage with politicians to question unrealistic political decisions. In science controversy is inevitable, and nature isn’t democratic. Advice should be measured and presented only after significant peer review.

David Bradley CChem FRSC
Liverpool, UK

Inspiring words

You don’t usually find inspiration in an editorial, so Adam Brownsell’s words on Covid-19 hijacking global priorities (Chemistry World, May 2020, p1) are worth repeating and disseminating more widely:

‘We are confronted with what essential work really is, and who essential workers really are. I sit here and ponder the next sentence while elsewhere someone is saving a life, another is working toward saving thousands of lives, and yet another is comforting someone who has lost a loved one. It’s a humbling perspective.’

Well-crafted words are a potent weapon in the fight. They motivate, inspire, console and sustain. I don’t know where Adam found the words he used, but he could do with trying to find some more. Right now we need them.

Nicholas White CChem FRSC
Bishop’s Stortford, UK

Water surprise

I much enjoyed reading the April issue of Chemistry World at some length. The article on water (Chemistry World, April 2020, p26) stirred a long-forgotten memory of a consequence of the major shutdown of research projects at the onset of the second world war so that their personnel could be transferred to contribute to the war effort.

When I was a research student in the early 1960s I read an article in what I think was the Proceedings of the Chemical Society of one consequence of this development. Apparently samples intended for use in some suspended research projects were stored in desiccators at the beginning of the war and remained so until hostilities were over. It was reported that this prolonged storage under lengthy desiccation produced compounds with much changed physical properties such as melting point. It was suggested that the removal of these final traces of water was responsible.

I wonder if anything became of these observations and if they are another example of the weirdness of water.

Alan Townshend CChem FRSC
Hull, UK

Bottle scar

Andrea Sella’s article about the wash bottle (Chemistry World, April 2020, p70) took me back almost 70 years to May 1950, when I started work in the control laboratory at Standard Telephones and Cables (STC) in North Woolwich. The first thing I was shown was how to make a wash bottle. Unfortunately, being somewhat ham-fisted I managed to break one of the tubes while passing it through the rubber bung and still bear the scar on my right palm to this day. Oh happy days.

David Fellows CChem MRSC
Crowborough, UK

Chemistry World welcomes letters, which should be concise (normally fewer than 300 words) and timely. Those selected for publication are subject to editing for clarity and length. Letters should be marked ‘for publication’ and sent to

We do not routinely acknowledge letters.