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.
Now, an article in the Wall Street Journal by Alicia Mundy tells us more about what we don't know,
The Chinese government didn't pursue an investigation into contaminated heparin sent to the U.S. in 2007 and 2008, despite repeated requests from the U.S. for help, according to a congressional probe.
Two House Republicans said Food and Drug Administration officials recently told them that the agency has been "severely hampered" by the lack of cooperation from China in finding those responsible.
'It is shocking to find out two years after Chinese-made heparin was killing Americans, the Chinese government still has done no investigating to find out why,' said Mr. Barton, the top Republican on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. He called on ... [FDA Commissioner Margaret] Hamburg to air the issue with Chinese officials.
Chinese officials denied there is a problem,
Yan Jiangying, spokeswoman for China's State Food and Drug Administration, said the congressmen's accusations are 'not true.'
Ms. Yan said her agency 'did a very thorough investigation, including very detailed inspection and testing, and surveys of enterprises as well. We signed an agreement with the FDA on drug safety in the end of 2007, and strengthened the monitoring of heparin.'
Note that their investigation, such as it was, did not appear to identify any misconduct or wrong-doing by anyone.
So now we know more about what we do not know about the deadly adulterated heparin from China.
But remember this is a case about heparin sold in the USA by Baxter International, an American company as an American product, resulting in the death of Americans. Also, remember that the American company obtained the heparin from another American 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.
Since Baxter International sold the heparin under its own label, should not its leaders be responsible for the safety and purity of the product? Since Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC furnished the active pharmaceutical agreement to Baxter, and obtained it from a factory it partially owned in China, should not its leaders also be responsible for the safety and purity of the product?
It would be important to find out ultimately where in China the adulterated heparin entered the supply chain, but the current uncertainty about the initial origin of the contamination does not absolve those in the US who sold the active pharmaceutical ingredient, and then sold that ingredient in bottles with a US company label of responsibility for the safety and purity of the drug.
Why have we heard nothing more from Baxter International's and Scientific Protein Laboratories' leaders about the deadly heparin which they had sold? Why have we heard nothing more about any investigation of these US based participants in this case?
Both US companies doubtless saved money by buying the heparin from the cheapest Chinese sources they could find, by not directly inspecting and supervising its production, and by at best ignoring the lack of regulation of producers of active pharmaceutical ingredients in China. They and their leaders benefited from this out-sourced, off-shore production. (Note that Baxter CEO Robert L Parkinson Jr received total compensation of $14,361,305 according to the company's proxy statement, and six named officers all received more than $2,200,000.) Why aren't they being held accountable for its bad results?
As we have said until being blue in the face, 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).
Hat tip to Ed Silverman on the PharmaLot blog.