Monday, April 19, 2010

Another Echo of the Case of the Deadly Heparin - A Report on the Perils of Out-Sourcing Drug Production

In 2008, we published multiple posts on how heparin made as an "active pharmaceutical ingredient" in China under apparently primitive conditions, contaminated accidentally or deliberately, was sold in the US bearing the label of a large American pharmaceutical company.  Ultimately, many patients were sickened, or died.  A summary of our posts on the topic, in smaller type, is below.

Case Summary

- We have posted several times, recently here and 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.

- 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.) 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.)

- 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.)

Now, as reported to date only on the PostScript blog, a US government report on problems with active pharmaceutical ingredients made in China has appeared.
A new report (pdf) by the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission stresses the safety risks to Americans posed by pharmaceutical ingredients made in China.

According to the report, issued by a group that advises Congress on the economic and trade implications of U.S.-China relations, found that the U.S. is the number one destination for Chinese pharmaceutical raw material exports – a $2.2 billion business each year. The U.S. relies heavily on Chinese products not only for over-the-counter drugs but for active pharmaceutical ingredients (API) found in prescription drugs.

And the report makes clear that China has neither the will nor the systems in place to monitor its exports.

This begs the question that most of the coverage of the deadly heparin also begged.  Are American pharmaceutical companies so besotted with the need for cost-savings that they are willing to buy active pharmaceutical ingredients with unknown provenance overseas as if they were a pig in a poke?  If so, why do we allow company leadership to potentially sacrifice quality, and sell adulterated drugs just to enrich their bottom lines (and their executives' salaries)? 

1 comment:

Michelle W said...

As usual for HC Renewal, an eye-opening piece. However, I'd add another question at the end of this piece, "Are Americans so besotted with cost-savings that they are willing to buy potentially less safe products from overseas companies who do not have our best interests at heart?" I'd say the answer is a big fat yes.

It's not that I want to let companies and the government off the hook, but I think the problem is much bigger than that. We as people vote, whether with a ballot or with our dollar. We influence markets. No matter how much we voice our outrage, our actions speak louder. If we want to change, we have to make changes across the board, not just at the top.