All the heparin related to these events was made by Baxter International. We then learned that although the heparin carried the Baxter label, it was not really made by Baxter. In fact, the company had outsourced production of the active ingredient to a long, and ultimately mysterious supply chain. Baxter got the active ingredient from a US company, Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, which in turn obtained it from a factory in China operated by Changzhou SPL, which in turn was owned by Scientific Protein Laboratories and by Changzhou Techpool Pharmaceutical Co. Changzhou SPL, in turn, got it from several consolidators or wholesalers, who in turn got it from numerous small, unidentified "workshops," which seemed to produce the product in often primitive and unsanitary conditions. None of the stops in the Chinese supply chain had apparently been inspected by the US Food and Drug Administration nor its Chinese counterpart. Most recently, we found out that the Baxter International labelled heparin was contaminated with over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate, a substance not found in nature, but which mimics heparin according to the simple laboratory tests used in the Chinese facilities to check incoming heparin. (See post here.)
It is not clear whether Baxter International or Scientific Protein Laboratories had inspected most of the steps in the supply chain, or even knew what went on there. The Baxter and Scientific Protein Laboratories CEOs did not seem aware of where they got the heparin on which the Baxter International label was eventually affixed. But one report in the New York Times alleged that Scientific Protein Laboratories would not pay enough for heparin to satisfy any sources other than the small "workshops."
By the end of this week, it became clear that the counterfeit ingredient was added to the heparin in China. Per Bloomberg,
The contamination was present in the powdered raw heparin purchased by Scientific Protein's plant in China, said Robert Rhoades, a pharmaceutical consultant with Becker & Associates in Washington, speaking for Scientific Protein. The company was unaware of the contamination at the time because it wasn't detected in tests Scientific Protein conducted on the powder provided by suppliers, he said.
Scientific Protein purchased raw heparin from consolidators and refined it further before sending it to Baxter, which uses the ingredient to make the finished drug, Rhoades said. The consolidators obtained the ingredients from workshops in China, he said.
The contaminant 'was very likely introduced at the workshop or consolidator level,' Norbert Riedel, Baxter's corporate vice president and chief scientific officer, has said.
Nonetheless, a number of experts suggested that there was reason not be complacent about drugs made in China. A Washington Post article noted that it was well known that Chinese manufacturers were liable to supply dodgy drugs,
Although the contaminated heparin is the largest and highest-profile instance of tainted prescription drugs made in China, it is not the first. In the late 1990s, a spike in deaths associated with the intravenous antibiotic gentamicin was linked to China-based Long March Pharmaceuticals. Although no definitive link was ever established, tests by German researchers later found a wide range in quality and effectiveness in what were supposed to be uniform dosages of the drug, leading them to write that 'it was assumed' the deaths 'were related to faulty manufacture.'
The Post quoted former US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) official William Hubbard,
The history of some of these developing countries in terms of substituting or counterfeiting concerns is a long and well-documented one....
USA Today quoted former FDA Commissioner David Kessler saying that
the news shouldn't come as a surprise: China is 'as close to an unregulated environment as you can get.' In fact, it's a lot like the USA was in 1906, he says —'that's why we developed an FDA.'
Furthermore, one expert argued that Baxter International was ultimately responsible for the drug that it sold, per the Chicago Tribune,
The presence of a foreign ingredient raises new questions about Baxter's oversight because a lack of record-keeping at the China plant makes it more difficult for Baxter and government inspectors to trace the origin of the raw material for Baxter's product.
'Where are the controls here? What is the process here?' asked Carl Nielsen, who was the FDA's director of import operations and policy before leaving the agency to form a consulting firm in 2005.
'Ultimately, Baxter is the most responsible' for monitoring the quality of products that move through the company's pipeline, Nielsen said.
Yet Baxter International executives have not exactly been jumping forward to claim responsibility. In a letter, again to the Chicago Tribune, Peter J Arduini, President, Medication Delivery, for Baxter International seemed to be deflecting responsibility towards Scientific Protein Laboratories and the FDA, while asserting Baxter did all it could do.
Regarding the issue of active pharmaceutical ingredient that originated in China, Baxter's API supplier for heparin is in fact a Wisconsin-based company, Scientific Protein Laboratories, with whom Baxter and its predecessor in this business has worked for more than 30 years. SPL had been procuring heparin raw material from China for more than 10 years and opened a location in Changzhou, China, in 2004. Baxter worked with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to obtain the appropriate approvals to work with this facility. For the API we receive from SPL, and for the API we receive from all our suppliers, Baxter performs quality testing of all incoming materials above and beyond what's required, to ensure that incoming API is what our suppliers claim it to be. Unfortunately, as the FDA has said, the problematic heparin API could not have been detected by the testing required of and done by any heparin manufacturer.Previously Baxter International's CEO, Robert L Parkinson Jr, had dodged responsibility for the supply chain that provided the heparin to Scientific Protein Research's Changzhou facility, as we posted here, and as originally reported in the Chicago Tribune,
Baxter International Inc. does not monitor its supply chain to the extent that it would know that a supplier in China was never inspected before it began shipment of the blood-thinning drug heparin, which is linked to more than 300 illnesses in the U.S., the company's chief executive said Wednesday.
Baxter contracted with a Wisconsin supplier, Scientific Protein Laboratories, and not with that company's Chinese affiliate, Baxter CEO Robert Parkinson said Wednesday in his first interview since the heparin problems surfaced.
'It's not unusual for us not to know that the FDA hasn't inspected a supplier to a supplier,' Parkinson said.
Yet if Baxter International is not responsible for the production of drugs that carry its name, who is? If Baxter International's executives are not responsible for how the drugs it sells are manufactured, who should be?
In an ironic juxtaposition, a small and little noticed news item last week declared that Robert Parkinson received $16,600,000 in compensation in 2007, a 30.5% increase from 2006. In fact, the company's 2008 proxy statement suggests even greater total compensation in 2007, $17,580,718. And Mr Arduini's 2007 compensation was reported to be $2,438,642.
The usual justification for compensation at this level is the brilliance of and great responsibilities borne by the executives who receive it. But, if Baxter International's executives will not take responsibility for their products and how they are made, what again is the justification for paying them the big bucks?
So the case of the contaminated heparin becomes another reason to question the imperial nature of the current leadership of health care organizations.