Thursday, February 24, 2011

Three Years Later, A Congressional Investigation of the Deadly Adulterated Heparin

Slightly more than three years ago, we first posted about the case of the deadly adulterated heparin.  (A case summary is appended to the end of this post, and nearly all our posts are here.)  The case is of fundamental importance because it involves the failure of pharmaceutical companies to fulfill their core mission, to supply pure, unadulterated drugs.   Three years later, how the heparin was adulterated, and who was responsible are still unknown.

So now, it seems, there will actually be an official investigation.  As reported by Alicia Mundy in the Wall Street Journal,
The House Energy and Commerce Committee is conducting a formal investigation into the contaminated-heparin crisis of 2008, saying it wants regulators to figure out who was responsible for adulteration linked to 81 U.S. deaths.

The panel's chairman, Rep. Fred Upton (R., Mich.), and two colleagues sent a letter Wednesday to the Food and Drug Administration asking for documents on whether the agency pursued possible culprits in China and pushed the Chinese government for more information.

'The committee is investigating the unsolved case of who contaminated the U.S. supply of heparin,' a blood thinner used by about 12 million Americans annually, said Mr. Upton, joined by Reps. Clifford Stearns (R., Fla.) and Michael Burgess (R., Texas).

Better late than never, I suppose. In March, 2008, I called the case "outrageous," and called for an investigation. You really did hear it here first on Health Care Renewal. So three years later, an investigation has actually begun.

The latest WSJ article noted:
'There is substantial public interest in solving this case' because more than 80% of the standard heparin supply in the U.S. today comes from China, the lawmakers wrote. About 16% of all pharmaceutical ingredients in the country are imported from China, they wrote.

'There is reason to believe all or some of the individuals responsible for the adulteration are still actively engaged in the Chinese pharmaceutical supply chain, and pose a continuing threat to pharmaceutical products imported to the U.S.,' the lawmakers wrote.

However, why this "substantial public interest" and the existence of "a continuing threat" did not lead to an investigation earlier is still completely obscure.

The article hinted at some partisan discord in the committee that will do the investigation:
Over the last two years, Mr. Burgess and the Energy and Commerce Committee's then-top Republican, Rep. Joe Barton of Texas, pressed the FDA for information on the agency's inspections of Chinese heparin facilities and on the extent of cooperation from national and local Chinese authorities.

At the time, Republicans were in the minority. Their inquiries didn't constitute a committee investigation, and they couldn't demand nonpublic information from the FDA or call hearings. They now are in the majority and have those powers.

The implication is that the Democrats on the committee blocked the investigation. Why they would have blocked an investigation when the executive branch was in Republican hands, and why the matter could not have been investigated in another congressional committee, or by some other organization, is unknown.

So, again, better late than never. An investigation could at least be the beginnings of accountability for the very well paid pharmaceutical company leaders who up to now have denied all responsibility for failing their most important responsibility, to provide pure, unadulterated drugs.

As we have said again and again, as long as the leaders of health care organizations are not held accountable for the results of their decisions on health care quality, cost, and access (even in such extreme quality violations as those resulting in multiple patient deaths), we can expect continuing decisions that sacrifice quality, increase costs, and worsen access, but that are in the self-interest of the people making them.

To really reform health care, we must hold health care organizations and their leaders accountable (and not blame all the problems on doctors, other health care professionals, patients, and society at large).

Case Summary

- We have posted several times, recently here, about the tragic case of suddenly allergenic heparin. Although heparin, an intravenous biologic anti-coagulant, has been in use for over 70 years, serious allergic reactions to it had heretofore been rare. Starting late last year, hundreds of such reactions, and now 21 deaths were reported in the US after intravenous heparin infusions.All the heparin related to these events in the US was made by Baxter International.

- We then learned that although the heparin carried the Baxter label, it was not really made by Baxter. 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.

- 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.) Further testing revealed that the contamination seemed to have taken place in China prior to the provision of the heparin to Changzhou SPL. (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."

- Leaders of all organizations involved, Baxter International, Scientific Protein Laboratories, Changzhou SPL, the Chinese government, and the US Food and Drug Administration, and the US Congress assigned blame to each other, but none took individual or organizational responsibility. (See post here.)  Note that SPL was recently bought out and taken private, making its current leadership even less transparent (see post here).  A 2010 inspection of an SPL facility by the FDA revealed ongoing manufacturing problems (see post here).

- Researchers (who turned out to have financial ties to a company which is developing an anti-coagulant drug that could compete with the heparin made by Baxter International) investigated the biological mechanisms by which the contamination of the heparin lead to adverse effects, but no one investigated further how the contamination occurred, or who was responsible. (See post here.)

- Hundreds of lawsuits against Baxter have now been filed, so far without resolution. (See post here.)  Efforts to make documents to be used in these cases public so far have not succeeded (see post here).

- A government report which attracted little attention warned of the dangers of pharmaceutical ingredients made in China and subject to virtually no oversight. (See post here.)

-  Despite requests from the US, the Chinese government did not investigate the production of the heparin that lead to the deaths (see post here.)

Hat tip to the Postscript blog.

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