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.
Here We Go Again
At the end of March, 2016, per Bloomberg,
Heparin tainted with unauthorized Chinese-made ingredients may be on the market in the U.S. and the Food and Drug Administration hasn’t moved swiftly enough to prevent it, according to a congressional probe nearly a decade after hundreds of deaths were linked to sullied batches of the blood-thinning drug.
This possible contamination is different from the earlier one, when Chinese producers made crude heparin containing a deadly chemical. They may be using cow and sheep intestines to produce the raw material for heparin that is supposed to be derived only from the intestinal membranes of pigs, according to a letter the House Energy and Commerce Committee sent Tuesday to the FDA. The agency has known about the risky practice since 2007, around the time it discovered the chemically enhanced crude heparin, the panel said.
The FDA didn’t react early on 'to credible evidence of non-porcine contamination of the Chinese heparin supply,' according to the letter, only putting out testing guidelines for pharmaceutical companies in 2012. Even after the tragedy of the chemically soiled heparin, the committee said, 'loopholes and exemptions that permit part of the Chinese drug supply chain to operate outside government scrutiny still remain.'
The committee charged that nothing much as changed since the 2008 episode of deadly heparin made from Chinese pigs
The letter from the House committee said the FDA dropped the ball on many fronts and may have allowed unsafe blood thinners to remain on the market longer than necessary. Regulators didn’t properly or widely enough share information and didn’t follow up on leads about tainted heparin from other governments, according to the letter. Agency investigators failed to inform others about dodgy crude heparin makers, the panel said. It also said the FDA didn’t follow up on concerns that heparin with the chemical was recycled after the poison was removed and may have entered the U.S. market. The claims are based on documents that Baxter, Scientific Protein and FDA provided the committee as well as interviews with FDA employees, according to footnotes in the letter.
Also, efforts to investigate the 2008 problem seem to have failed,
The chemical, oversulfated chondroitin sulfate, was connected to 246 deaths and sickened hundreds of people who took the blood-thinning medicine, the FDA said at the time. Regulators never found at what point in the chain in China that the drug, sold in the U.S. by Baxter International Inc., was corrupted. The FDA closed its initial criminal investigation after it became difficult to obtain evidence in China, though it has since re-opened a related inquiry, according to the House committee. Baxter, which recalled its heparin in 2008, hasn’t sold the anticoagulant since. It said at the time it was alarmed that the contamination appeared to have been deliberate, but had no proof of how it happened.
Now the problem appears to be more bovine. It appears that French regulators first noted the problem of imported heparin derived from Chinese cows.
The French National Agency for Medicines and Health Products Safety called non-pig blending a 'critical' violation in an inspection report released in February. France cited China’s Dongying Tiandong Pharmaceutical Co. for making heparin with ruminant DNA, which includes cows and sheep. Dongying is registered with the FDA as a manufacturer of active ingredients and isn’t on the agency’s list of companies banned from importing to the U.S.
Yet, the FDA
considers heparin adulterated if it contains oversulfated chondroitin sulfate or non-pig material, according to an FDA document for the pharmaceutical industry on monitoring heparin quality. Material from cows could pose a risk because of possible contamination with mad cow disease.Oddly enough, the Bloomberg article did not mention any criticism by the committee of the US based manufacturers who outsourced their heparin production to China.
Outsourcing Continues Unabated
In 2012 we noted that outsourcing by big multinational drug companies based in the US and other developed countries of active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) production to dubious manufacturers based in countries with much less robust regulation was continuing. I wrote then
To put it more directly, most so called pharmaceutical companies in the US and other developed countries have outsourced the actual manufacturing of drugs. Thus, most companies that appear to be pharmaceutical manufacturing companies are really just pharmaceutical marketing and development companies. (And not so much the latter, look here: Light DW, Lexchin JR. Pharmaceutical R&D; what do we get for all that money? Brit Med J 2012; 345: 22-25. Link here.) Pharmaceutical companies appear to be abandoning their core essence, but are content to market drugs under their logos without telling the patients who take them the real source of these products. This would appear to be a big scandal, but one that stays curiously anechoic.
In 2016, outsourcing of drugs by big multinational corporations with prestigious names seems to be continuing at a rapid pace. Per Bloomberg,
The U.S. depends heavily on China for medicine. Along with India, the country is one of the top two producers of base ingredients for drugs in the world, according to the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.
There is still no clear way for US patients or doctors to identify outsourced medicines, and efforts to better regulate them seem feeble. Thus the danger that patients may be getting ineffective, adulterated, even deadly outsourced medicine in bottles with the logos of big, famous pharmaceutical companies seems to be ongoing.
The More Things Stay the Same
In 2012, we wrote
I have yet to see any discussion with pharmaceutical executives about why their companies hardly make drugs anymore. In the absence of such discussion, I can only speculate that most likely, this is first a product of financialization. Drug company executives, like most organizational leaders, have fallen under the spell that says their only goal should be to increase short-term revenues. It may be cheaper to buy drugs from perhaps dodgy outsourced suppliers rather than manufacturing them them themselves. Continuing stories like those above, and that of the contaminated Chinese heparin suggest that these outsourced drugs are cheap for a reason. It appears that to save money short-term, pharmaceutical executives may be abandoning their most central mission, to provide pure, unadulterated drugs.
The continuing story of outsourced pharmaceutical manufacturing provides yet more evidence that current management dogma may be literally toxic. Once again, I suggest that true health care reform requires leadership of health care organization who put patients' and the public's health ahead of short-term revenue (and the personal enrichment that may result).
It is likely that a number of policy changes will be needed to reduce the threats posed by contaminated or adulterated outsourced pharmaceuticals. There is one simple step that ought to be taken quickly to at least make the problem more transparent. In the US, most manufactured products have a label disclosing the country of origin. In parallel with that, all pharmaceutical containers, and all pharmaceutical labels and marketing materials ought to disclose the country in which the active pharmaceutical ingredient was manufactured, and the name and location of the company responsible for that manufacture.
There seems to be no need to rewrite or update this.
The fact that this problem has been known for 2008 year, but not clearly addressed, shows the pitiful state of American health care dysfunction. But those with vested interests in preserving the current system remain fat and happy, like the pigs of China.
Appendix - Heparin 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 in 2007, hundreds of such reactions, and 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. (See posts here and here.)
- 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.)
- In February, 2011, a congressional investigation of the case was announced, but results were unavailable until now (see above)
- In June, 2011, a jury returned the first verdict in a civil case about the contaminated heparin, awarding money from Baxter International and Scientific Protein Laboratories to the estate of a man who apparently died due to tainted heparin (see post here).