First there was Paxil (Seroxat in the UK, or paroxetine), the anti-depressant whose marketing lead GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) to settle allegations of fraud brought by then New York Attorney General Elliott Spitzer in 2004. That case included allegations of suppression and manipulation of clinical research, and was discussed in great detail in the book Side Effects by Alison Bass. We posted about various aspects of this case, e.g., more recently here, here, and here.
Then there was Avandia (rosiglitazone), the anti-diabetic drug whose use was just restricted by the US Food and Drug Administration. This GlaxoSmithKline product inspired a "spin cycle" which provided us with endless grist for the Health Care Renewal mill. A good summary of the case appeared in September in the British Medical Journal (Cohen D. Rosiglitazone: what went wrong: Brit Med J 2010; 341: 530-534. Link here) Once again, it appears that research was suppressed and manipulated (e.g., see here), Avandia critics were attacked by "experts" whose financial relationships with GSK were not always obvious (e.g., see here), and there were allegations that GSK executives tried to intimidate those who disagreed with them (e.g., see here and here).
And now it is adulterated drugs. Here is the version from Bloomberg:
GlaxoSmithKline Plc, the U.K.’s largest drugmaker, will pay $750 million to settle a U.S. whistleblower lawsuit over the sale of defective drugs.It seems that not only questions about GSK sponsored clinical research about and GSK marketing of Paxil and Avandia, but the company has problems even supplying tablets that contain the pure drugs at the right dose.
Glaxo and the U.S. Justice Department announced the agreement yesterday, resolving a false-claims lawsuit first filed in 2004 by Cheryl D. Eckard, a former global quality assurance manager for the London-based company.
'This is not something I wanted to do, but because of patient safety it was necessary,' Eckard, 51, told reporters following a Justice Department press conference in Boston. As a whistleblower, she will receive $96 million from the settlement money.
Glaxo was accused in court papers of selling tainted drugs under false pretenses. The medicines, made at a Glaxo plant in Cidra, Puerto Rico, were misidentified as a result of product mix-ups, according to papers filed in federal court in Boston. The affected drugs included the antidepressant Paxil CR and the diabetes treatment Avandamet. [Note that this is a combination drug that includes Avandia - ed]
The settlement includes a criminal fine and forfeiture totaling $150 million and a $600 million civil settlement under the False Claims Act and related state claims, the Justice Department said in a statement.
'We will not tolerate corporate attempts to profit at the expense of the ill and needy in our society -- or those who cut corners that result in potentially dangerous consequences to consumers,' Carmen M. Ortiz, the U.S. Attorney in Boston, said at yesterday’s news conference.
SB Pharmco Puerto Rico Inc., a Glaxo unit, agreed to plead guilty to charges relating to the manufacture and distribution of adulterated drugs made at the now-shuttered plant, the Justice Department said. Glaxo said in July it had agreed in principle with the U.S. to pay 500 million pounds ($791 million) to resolve the investigation.
'We regret that we operated the Cidra facility in a manner that was inconsistent with current Good Manufacturing Practice requirements and with GSK’s commitment to manufacturing quality,' PD Villarreal, a Glaxo senior vice president, said in an e-mailed statement.
Eckard’s take is the largest ever for a single whistleblower, said Patrick Burns, spokesman for Taxpayers Against Fraud, a nonprofit Washington group that publicizes the use of legal means to combat fraud against the U.S. The federal government will receive $436.4 million from the settlement and participating states will split as much as $163.6 million, the Justice Department said.
Other drugs made at the plant include Kytril, an anti- nausea medication, and Bactroban, an ointment used to treat skin infections, the Justice Department said.
'The false claims arose out of chronic, serious deficiencies in the quality assurance function at the Cidra plant and the defendants’ ongoing serious violations of the laws and regulations designed to ensure the fitness of drug products for use,' the government said in court papers.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 2005 seized some Paxil CR lots after it was discovered that the pills sometimes split inappropriately, according to court papers. Some of the pills lacked an active ingredient.
Summary and Discussion
First, this is another dreary marcher in the parade of legal settlements that we have now been chronicling for years. This case has some particular features. It included a guilty plea to a crime. Although the allegations included fraud, the fundamental problem seemed to be the selling of adulterated, impure drugs.
So my first comment is that this is the latest instance of a major pharmaceutical company not being able to fulfill its most basic responsibility and reason for being, the manufacture of pure, unadulterated drugs. We previously discussed problems with adulterated drugs made by Baxter International and Johnson and Johnson. We have discussed, seemingly endlessly, how big health care corporations, including but certainly not limited to pharmaceutical companies, have engaged in various sophisticated deceptions involving marketing and clinical research to sell more products at higher prices. Now it seems that while these companies have put so much of their resources into marketing and public relations, not necessarily in honest ways, they have neglected to put the necessary expertise and resources into their most basic manufacturing functions.
So while drug industry sycophants prattle on endless about life-saving innovations, not only have industry marketing and research become less trustworthy, but now we cannot even trust the companies to supply the drug that is on the label in a pure form at the labelled dose.
My next comment is that this is the third big case involving GlaxoSmithKline reported in the last few years. (Although, like the previous cases, the events that lead to recent relevations actually occurred over the last 10+ years.) This would suggest that there is a serious problem with the culture, leadership, and governance at this corporation.
Maybe one reason such problems are allowed to fester is that in the current case, like the last two involving GSK, and as is typical for the legal settlements and crimes we have discussed before, no individuals who authorized, directed, or implemented the problematic behavior seem to have suffered any negative consequences or paid any penalty. In fact, the Guardian just pointed out:
Five of the six senior GlaxoSmithKline executives cited by a whistleblower as part of a cover-up of contamination problems at the group's Puerto Rico factory are understood to still be employed by the pharmaceuticals company.
Cheryl Eckard, who was sacked by the company as a quality control manager in 2003 after repeatedly raising her concerns with a series of GSK executives, received a $96m (£61m) reward this week as part of a $750m criminal and civil settlement between US regulators and the company.
Her evidence stated that she believed company executives refused to acknowledge the gravity of the production violations – which included the wrong strength of pills being shipped – because it would delay the approval of two new drugs by the US Food and Drug Administration.
The court documents allege that Eckard, who had recommended the factory be shut until the issues were resolved, communicated the quality violations at the plant in Cidra to David Pulman, president of global manufacturing and supply; Janice Whitaker, senior vice president of global quality; Peter Savin, vice president of global quality assurance; Diane Sevigny, director of global quality assurance, risk management and compliance; and Jonathan Box, vice president of manufacturing and supply for North America.
All five executives are believed to be still working for the London-listed company, while Pulman is also a member of the company's 18-strong corporate executive team, which includes chief executive Andrew Witty.
As we have said endlessly, penalties that only appear to be (relatively small) costs of doing business are unlikely to deter future bad behavior. Until the people who actually authorized, directed and implemented the bad behavior have to suffer some negative consequences, expect the bad behavior to continue.
When it comes to health care's leadership, society seems to have acceded to defining deviancy down. Until we start holding health care leaders to high standards, expect their organizations not to uphold high standards. Further, expect organizations that did not uphold high standards in one instance to fail to uphold them in other instances.
See also comments on the Postscript blog.