Tuesday, August 17, 2010

"Proprietary Information," Confidentiality Motions, and the Anechoic Effect; the Case of the Contaminated Heparin

The case of the deadly contaminated heparin sold by Baxter International has received much less attention than seems warranted given its human costs (81 lives).  How the heparin was contaminated, and how the contaminated heparin ended up being sold as a US Food and Drug Administration approved American product are still unknown.  Our most recent post, here, noted that an investigation into the contamination of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API - actually the heparin itself) in China failed to produce any results, apparently because the Chinese government did not see fit to pursue it.  (Note that a brief summary of the whole case is at the end of this post.)
Now a new story in the Wall Street Journal by Alicia Mundy explains even more about why we do not know more about the contaminated heparin:
Baxter International Inc. faces a new challenge in federal court in its bid to block disclosure of documents about the 2008 contaminated-heparin crisis.

Baxter and Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC are fighting a civil mass tort lawsuit alleging deaths and injuries from imported Chinese heparin in 2007 and 2008. A company that isn't party to that lawsuit says some of the information Baxter and SPL want to keep confidential is important to public health and drug safety, and could reveal information about the sources of toxic heparin in the Chinese supply chain.

The two companies want to keep under seal portions of depositions taken in the case, including those related to Momenta Pharmaceuticals Inc., which helped the U.S. government investigate the contamination. Baxter and SPL say they will be hurt if forced to disclose proprietary information.

They have denied that they were negligent in the deaths linked to the blood-thinning drug, widely used in cardiovascular and other conditions.

On Aug. 3, federal Judge James Carr in Toledo, Ohio, ruled in favor of the confidentiality motion by Baxter and SPL.

On the other hand, there are arguments, admittedly by parties with relevant financial interests, for making more information public:
Last Friday, another company entered the fray, contending that the information in the depositions shouldn't be sealed. Amphastar Pharmaceuticals Inc. said public health could benefit if the depositions shed light on circumstances in China.

Amphastar, which has been competing with Momenta for approval to make a newer and more expensive form of heparin, said the information is also important to a congressional investigation into the Food and Drug Administration's handling of the heparin crisis. Republican leaders of a House committee say the FDA failed to trace the contamination in the Chinese heparin supply chain.

On July 23, the FDA granted approval to Momenta to make the special heparin called enoxaparin, while Amphastar's application remains on hold.

Amphastar said in its court filing that the 'serious safety concerns' involving heparin are relevant to enoxaparin because heparin is the starting material of enoxaparin's active ingredient. Most U.S. heparin supplies come from China.

Of course, the companies who want to keep as much about the case secret as they can are not talking about it:
Lawyers for Baxter and SPL declined to comment on their efforts to restrict information related to Momenta. They referred inquiries to Baxter, whose spokeswoman declined to comment.

So here is more about what we do not know about the deadly contaminated heparin from China. One reason that this case has remained so anechoic is that the companies that sold and processed the contaminated heparin, and are now defendants in lawsuits have used that situation as a rationale for keeping "proprietary" information secret.  There clearly may be reasons that Baxter International, the company that sold the heparin under their (formerly?) prestigious US label  wants to keep secret the details about what efforts it did or did not make to assure that the heparin it sold was pure and unadulterated. There clearly also may be reasons that Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, the US based company that sold the heparin API to Baxter wants to keep secret the details about what efforts it did or did not make to assure that the heparin API was pure and unadulterated. 

The ability of participants in lawsuits to keep "proprietary" information secret clearly adds to the anechoic effect.  Ironically, it may be that civil legal action, which is sometimes the only way to impose negative consequences on health care organizations that have misbehaved, may have the adverse effect of further hiding information about the events in question. 

However, to promote the safety of individual patients and the health of public, and to prevent another deadly case of drug contamination, understanding details about what happened is absolutely vital. The private pecuniary interests of Baxter International and Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC seem to be directly opposite to those of patients, physicians, and the public at large in this case. It is therefore disquieting to learn that the companies' wishes to keep information they declare is "proprietary" seem to have trumped individual patient safety and public health concerns. (Note that these concerns go beyond the commercial concerns of Amphastar Pharmaceutical, although in this case the pecuniary interests of that company do not seem to be opposed to patient safety and the public health.)

If we really want a health care system that improves the health of individuals and the public, we need it to put health and safety concerns ahead of the incomes of health care corporations.  That such a statement seems not a platitude, but revolutionary is a mark of how our health care system has been turned on its head.

Case Summary

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.)

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