Covid-19: The Role of Immigrants in America’s Biomedical Industry

As the public eagerly awaits a cure for Covid-19, hundreds of thousands of immigrants are working side-by-side with their fellow scientists, engineers, medical production workers, and pharmacists to develop the medicines and deliver the supplies that healthcare practitioners and patients need.

The latest data from the American Community Survey show that immigrants play a significant role in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry, developing and producing vaccines and medicines that prevent infections, cure diseases, and save lives. The more than 132,000 immigrants working in the industry made up a quarter of the total workforce in 2018. In California and New Jersey, more than two in five workers in this industry were immigrants.

Figure 1: Immigrants in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Industry

Number of Foreign-Born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-Born
United States 132,307 24.8%
California 29,741 42.6%
New Jersey 24,740 42.3%
Massachusetts 11,523 37.7%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Immigrants in the pharmaceutical manufacturing industry have highly specialized skills that are critical assets in this fight against Covid-19. More than half of the immigrant workers in this industry held an advanced degree, and about one-fifth of these immigrants were scientists. They include virologists, immunologists, and chemists, the very specialists working hard to study the novel coronavirus to find effective ways to prevent and treat Covid-19.

Figure 2: Educational Attainment of Workers in the Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Industry

Share of U.S.-Born Workers Share of Foreign-Born Workers
Bachelor’s Degree 40.9% 24.6%
Advanced Degree 24.1% 51.6%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

When it comes to medical innovations, immigrant scientists make major contributions in American hospitals as well, where new medications and treatments are developed and applied. More than two in five life scientists (43.2 percent), such as biologists and health scientists, and one in three physical scientists (36.1 percent), such as chemists, in hospitals were immigrants in 2018. They work closely with doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists to improve the diagnosis and treatment of patients, especially during the pandemic.

Furthermore, immigrants are vital to the medical equipment and supplies manufacturing industry, which is rushing to meet the growing demand for ventilators and personal protective equipment in response to the coronavirus outbreak. Nearly 149,000 immigrants made up about 24 percent of the workforce in this industry in 2018. In Massachusetts, one-third of all workers in the sector were foreign-born.

Close to half of these immigrant workers, 48.1 percent, held at least a bachelor’s degree. About 30 percent of immigrant workers in the industry were production workers, assembling and testing critical medical supplies ranging from face shields to protective gowns to parts needed in pulse oximeters and testing kits, and 5 percent were engineers.

Figure 3: Immigrants in the Medical Equipment and Supplies Manufacturing Industry

Number of Foreign-Born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-Born
United States 148,941 23.9%
California 46,307 43.1%
Massachusetts 11,256 33.0%
Florida 10,975 31.3%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

Another 142,000 immigrants are among the essential workers in pharmacies and drug stores across the country, getting patients the medications and medical supplies they need. Together they make up more than 15 percent of the pharmacy workforce. At least half of the immigrant workers in this sector were pharmacists and pharmacy technicians, and more than half of them hold at least a bachelor’s degree in 2018.

In several states, the industry is even more reliant on immigrant workers, including New York, where about 27 percent of the workforce is foreign-born. With the most confirmed Covid-19 cases in the United States, New Yorkers count on these immigrant workers to fill their prescriptions and replenish their medical supplies.

Figure 4: Immigrants in Pharmacies and Drug Stores

Number of Foreign-Born Workers Share of All Workers, Foreign-Born
United States 142,619 15.6%
California 22,682 27.9%
Florida 19,167 29.5%
New York 17,097 27.1%
Texas 13,251 20.4%
Source: NAE Analysis of 1-year sample from the 2018 American Community Survey

As the country is racing to develop vaccines, find treatments, and produce medical devices and supplies, immigrants are working together with their U.S.-born colleagues on the medical front, accelerating their efforts to contain the pandemic.

If you want to explore how immigrants often disproportionately serve in some of the most at-risk jobs in the Covid-19 crisis, including pharmacists featured in this brief, click the image below to explore our data visualization.

Finally, check out our research portal of Immigration and Covid-19. If you have any specific questions about our data, please reach out to us at info@newamericaneconomy.org.

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