Thursday, December 02, 2010

"Unreasonably Dangerous" Heparin

It is time for an update on the case of the deadly contaminated heparin sold by Baxter International, which 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.  Despite the fact that the outcome of this case were so bad, it received disproportionately little attention when it was first made public, and now seems to have become nearly anechoic.

Case 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, and for all our posts on this topic, look here.)

Civil Cases Plod Forward
If there is any ongoing official investigation of this case, it has not been made public.  Civil cases filed by patients allegedly injured by the heparin, or by relatives of patients who died allegedly from the heparin, seem to be proceeding at a glacial pace.  However, there is one development in one set of civil cases worthy of note.  As reported two weeks ago by Alicia Mundy in the Wall Street Journal:
A state court in Illinois has granted a partial summary judgment to two plaintiffs suing Baxter International Inc. over contaminated blood thinner, saying that some of the company's heparin was 'unreasonably dangerous.'

The suit involves tainted imported heparin ingredients from China that caused a public health crisis in 2008, and were linked to more than 80 deaths in the U.S. and many other serious allergic reactions.

Some 300 cases nationwide against Baxter and its main ingredient supplier, Wisconsin-based Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, were consolidated in Chicago in Cook County Circuit Court.

Both companies have said that they weren't negligent and weren't responsible for the deadly reactions among patients.

The Illinois judge's ruling, dated Wednesday, involved a motion for partial summary judgment that named only Baxter. The motion was filed on behalf of two plaintiffs in the consolidated cases, one of whom died.

The ruling cites statements by Baxter's corporate quality vice president and the president of the company's medication delivery division that the heparin was defective.

Baxter argued in its defense that a jury should address the question of whether a product is 'unreasonably dangerous.' The company noted that the two Baxter executives who agreed in depositions that the heparin was defective aren't doctors or scientists. However, Judge Jennifer Duncan-Brice wrote that the issue before her wasn't whether heparin actually caused the death or injury to the plaintiffs, but just whether the product was, as a matter of fact, contaminated.
The most basic responsibility of a pharmaceutical company is to produce pure, unadulterated product.  As the current director of the US Food and Drug Administration wrote in this week's New England Journal of Medicine, the agency's "modern regulatory functions began with the passage of the 1906 Pure Food and Drugs Act, a law, more than a quarter of a century in the making, that prohibited interstate commerce in adulterated and misbranded food and drugs."  However, in the 21st century, drug companies are increasingly failing to produce unadulterated products, and the FDA is having increasing difficulty assuring patients that the drugs they take meet even the most basic safety standards. 

I submit that corporate cultures increasingly influenced by the arrogant, greedy, amoral leadership of the financial services industry that lead us to the brink of another depression are also leading us to the brink of a poisonous era in health care.  Corporate leaders intent on cutting costs, and paying themselves as much of the resulting proceeds as possible, may see quality and safety as just another cost cutting target.  Corporate leaders brought up in the culture of finance, but untrained and inexperienced in engineering, science, and medicine find it all too easy to ignore quality and safety and focus on the bottom line.  (It is ironic that in the quote above, Baxter International's attorneys made light of the judgments of the company's own executives because they are not physicians or scientists.)

Meanwhile, society seems to have been so mesmerized by the mantra that laissez faire capitalism will lead to miraculous "innovation" that we do not even attend to instances in which it lead instead to death.

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).


Indianapolis Individual said...

I can't say I'm familiar with that drug but now I'm curious what it is. I assume it is a non-generic and quite expensive.

Unknown said...

Thank you for your work on this topic. I lost my Mother to this travesty. I don't have the emotional strength to research this myself. I appreciate your persistence and commend your understanding that this threatens us all. Burr

Anonymous said...

Its obvious that public perception in testafykng to congress was of upmost importance. Put profits over safety and cover that corportate greed with an apology seems to be suffiecent, regardless of the injuries and death. Its obvious too that the CEO did not talk to his legal team prior to testafiying. Now the lawyers have to cover up and back pedal. Parkinson chose to tell the truth upfront that the product was unsafe than lie and risk pergury and jail. AS they said: the risk of not heparin on the market outweighted the risk of someone becoming ill or dying. Its all about the money, they knew they would be exonerated. Hopefully they will get justice as the evidence mounts against them. Families should be compensated to set a president.