One of the key players in this case was a company called Scientific Protein Laboratories (SPL). The company that sold the heparin in the US under its logo, Baxter International, had outsourced production of the active ingredient to a long, and ultimately mysterious supply chain. Baxter got the active ingredient from Scientific Protein Laboratories, 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.
Even More Contaminated Heparin?
Now it looks like SPL may have sold contaminated heparin elsewhere, after the above story of the contaminated heparin sold by Baxter became public, as reported by Alicia Mundy in the Wall Street Journal:
A major U.S. heparin wholesaler received a complaint from a corporate customer about a contaminated batch of blood thinner in October 2008, but didn't investigate for almost a year, according to a recent Food and Drug Administration notice to the company.
Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC got the customer complaint months after the FDA announced nationwide recalls of many heparin products.
In more detail,
In a report last month, reviewed by The Wall Street Journal, the FDA told SPL that it 'did not adequately investigate a complaint that affected product quality.' The report said SPL didn't begin a probe of the contamination complaint until September 2009, and failed to investigate 'other lots of heparin that may have been associated with the complaint.'
The FDA said Wednesday it cited SPL for 'violations of current good manufacturing practice' and is still investigating. 'FDA believes the issue does not present a significant public-health risk,' it said. An FDA spokeswoman said the batch in question never reached patients.
After SPL looked into the October 2008 complaint, it found that the contaminated raw material was used in two processed batches of heparin , the FDA report said. SPL ended its review of one batch in June 2010. It didn't investigate the second, the FDA said.
It looked like this instance of contaminated heparin did not pose a public health hazard because the company to whom it was shipped, possibly alerted by the case above, tested and rejected the SPL heparin
SPL said Wednesday the heparin lots in question 'passed all the then-required, state-of-the-art testing' to detect contamination, however trace amounts of contaminant, oversulfated chrondroitin sulfate, were found by a customer using their own specialized testing. The company also said no adverse events were reported involving the batch in question. [Ed - apparently because the buyer realized the problem and never used the batch in its products that were provided to the public.]
So even after the whole problem of oversulfated chrondroitin sulfate contaminated heparin had become a public scandal, the company that passed along the heparin that became subject of that scandal had "state-of-the-art testing" that could not adequately detect that specific contaminant, although the company to whom it sold the heparin apparently was able to test for it.
Providing pure, unadulterated products is the most elementary responsibility of drug companies. The US Food and Drug Administration was set up mainly to ensure the purity of drugs (and only later, to ensure their effectiveness and then safety). Yet some US companies have proven unable to assure the purity of their products. (For another prominent case, go here.) Now we have an instance in which a company still seemed unable to check their products for impurities even after they knew dangerous impurities could be present and had been present in other batches of the products they sold, and even after other companies had figured out how to perform such checks.
As we have said before, seemingly infinitum, if we want a health care system that provides good quality, affordable, accessible care, we need health care leaders who put the wellbeing of patients ahead of their own pocketbooks, and to hold them accountable for doing so.
Holding Leaders Accountable, If Only One Could Find Them
By the way, this case further illustrates how far from that ideal we are, because it is not even obvious who the leaders of SPL who ought to be held so accountable actually are. The SPL web-site says nothing about corporate governance or leadership.
After some Google searching, it turns out that the reason for this is that SPL was bought out by private equity firm American Capital Strategies Ltd in 2006, two years before the contaminated heparin scandal became manifest. Although American Capital Strategies Ltd is publicly traded, its 2010 proxy statement and most recent publicly available annual report (of 2008) say almost nothing about SPL. Private equity firms are known for acquiring troubled companies and trying to turn quick profits from them, often from stringent cost-cutting and selling off assets. They are not particularly known for their devotion to better patient care. None of the top executives and directors of American Capital Strategies Ltd seem to have health care backgrounds or experience or any other reason to sympathize with the core values of health care professionals.
Further Google searching did suggest that the CEO of SPL is one David G Strunce, but revealed little biographical information about him. How he and other executives of that company might better be held accountable is not obvious.
So what will it take to get the leaders of pharmaceutical companies to take their responsibility to provide pure, unadulterated drugs more seriously? How will society be able to better hold those leaders accountable? How can we get leaders of health care to put the health of the people ahead of their own financial returns?
The case of the adulterated heparin suggests these questions will not be easily answered.
In summary, Baxter International imported the "active pharmaceutical ingredient" (API) of heparin, that is, in plainer language, the drug itself, from China. That API was then sold, with some minor processing, as a Baxter International product with a Baxter International label. The drug came from a sketchy supply chain that Baxter did not directly supervise, apparently originating in small "workshops" operating under primitive and unsanitary conditions without any meaningful inspection or supervision by the company, the Chinese government, or the FDA. The heparin proved to have been adulterated with over-sulfated chondroitin sulfate (OSCS), and many patients who received got seriously ill or died. While there have been investigations of how the adulteration adversely affected patients, to date, there have been no publicly reported investigations of how the OSCS got into the heparin, and who should have been responsible for overseeing the purity and safety of the product. Despite the facts that clearly patients died from receiving this adulterated drug, no individual has yet suffered any negative consequence for what amounted to poisoning of patients with a brand-name but adulterated pharmaceutical product.
(For a more detailed summary of the case, look here.)