We have been tough on the FDA, we admit it. We have questioned the agency’s generic drug approval process. We have criticized the Food and Drug Administration for being slow to discover and report serious adverse drug reactions. We have chastised the organization for permitting so many horrible drug ads on television. We are especially dismayed by FDA inspections that have allowed serious problems to slip through the cracks. We are also disgusted with the FDA’s lack of transparency!
Kaiser Health News Blows the Whistle!
The Food and Drug Administration brags that:
“The U.S. drug supply chain remains one of the safest in the world.”
If that’s true, we really fear for other countries.
Kaiser Health News (KHN) recently investigated the FDA’s history of inspections and recalls. The article by Sidney Lupkin was titled
“Since the start of 2013, pharmaceutical companies based in the U.S. or abroad have recalled about 8,000 medicines, comprising billions of tablets, bottles and vials that have entered the U.S. drug supply and made their way to patients’ medicine cabinets, hospital supply closets and IV drips.”
The KHN investigation noted that the tainted products were problematical for a variety of reasons. Some contained too much or too little of the active pharmaceutical ingredient (API). Others were contaminated with bacteria, mold or foreign objects like glass.
Foreign OR Domestic Screw-Ups?
We have long worried about foreign drug manufacturing plants. That’s because the FDA has limited ability to inspect these facilities and detect problems that could lead to drug contamination. The agency must alert foreign drug makers well in advance of an inspection, blunting the effectiveness of this approach.
The KHN report suggests that even in the US, where FDA inspectors show up unannounced, inspections may not find all the problems that they should. Within a year of passing inspection, 65 drug manufacturing facilities had to recall almost 300 products.
FDA Inspections & Scary Stories!
Over the last decade or so we have been tracking FDA inspections. What we discovered is troubling to say the least. It is also amazing how fast these scandals disappear without a trace.
We do not understand why health professionals, patients and politicians have lost their sense of outrage. Too many people, it seems, have the attention span of gnats. Shortly after a story breaks, everyone loses interest. It’s on to the next news cycle and business as usual.
The Ranbaxy Debacle:
Investigative reporter Katherine Eban described in detail a case of fraud at Ranbaxy Laboratories in India in her May 15, 2013, article in Fortune titled “Dirty Medicine.”
A whistleblower at the company described
“…how the company fabricated and falsified data to win FDA approvals…”
Eventually Ranbaxy pleaded guilty and paid
“…$500 million in fines, forfeitures and penalties—the most ever levied against a generic-drug company.”
What is extraordinary about this scandal is that the FDA inspected one of the Ranbaxy facilities in 2004. This was around the time the whistleblower was discovering serious problems. The FDA apparently gave the company a green light to keep manufacturing and allowed ongoing generic drug export to the U.S.
Here’s the kicker. In her Fortune article Katherine Eban noted that:
“…the company’s misconduct continued well into 2009 even after the FDA restricted the company’s activities.”
“For all the actions taken by federal authorities, there is a deeply troubling aspect to the government’s role in the saga of Ranbaxy. Even as ever more details of the company’s long-running misconduct emerged, drug regulators permitted Ranbaxy to keep on selling many of its products.”
Cetero and FDA Inspections: The Big Ooops!
Lest you think FDA inspections abroad are the only problem, let us share this story about a Houston testing laboratory. Cetero Research analyzed data for brand name and generic drug companies.
The FDA sent inspectors to the lab on numerous occasions and did not uncover serious flaws. The data from Cetero was used to approve numerous generic drug products for sale in the U.S. But a whistleblower at the company reported that some of the scientists there were falsifying data.
The FDA eventually determined that drug tests done at Cetero between 2005 and 2010 were untrustworthy. ProPublica (April 15, 2013) issued an investigative report that was mind blowing :
We summarized this scandal at this link:
The bottom line is that the agency 1) did not uncover the fraud during its FDA inspections and 2) did not notify the American public which drugs were under suspicion or suspend sale of the questionable products. This is another egregious case of FDA’s lack of transparency.
There are many other examples of fraud and drug contamination. We will not bore you with additional examples. It often takes a story to bring home these abstract problems and make them meaningful.
When FDA Inspections Fail There Is Human Tragedy:
The KHN investigative piece (January 4, 2019) about tainted drugs gets personal with this tragic story. It involves an over-the-counter stool softener (docusate). Staff at a Texas hospital noticed an increase in an unusual infection called Burkholderia cepacia. This bacterium is found in soil and has no place in medicines. A six-month investigation traced it to docusate made at a plant in Florida.
The KHN report highlights the case of a toddler treated with contaminated docusate. B cepacia showed up in his respiratory tract and led to “serious and dangerous life-threatening injuries,” according to a lawsuit his parents filed. Years later he is still on a ventilator. The same OTC medication has affected 63 individuals in a dozen states according to KHN.
FDA Inspections: No Guarantee!
How could a contaminated OTC drug get to consumers? Unfortunately, it’s easier than you might think. The FDA is supposed to carefully inspect all drug manufacturing facilities on a regular basis.
But the KHN report notes:
“Inspectors miss serious hazards. Drugmakers fail to meet standards even after the FDA has taken enforcement action. Hundreds of plants haven’t been inspected for years, if ever.”
Carcinogens in Blood Pressure Meds?
Last July the European Medicines Agency (EMA) announced a recall of a popular blood pressure drug, valsartan. The Chinese company, Zhejiang HuaHai Pharmaceutical company in Linhai, China, had changed its manufacturing process. The result was contamination with a probable carcinogen, NDMA (N-nitrosodimethylamine). As far as we can tell, the contamination had been going on for years.
The FDA eventually issued its own recall. Since July we have seen a shocking number of additional recalls. Not only valsartan, but also irbesartan and losartan and several combination medications have been caught up in the ongoing contamination controversy. You can read about these disasters at this link.
In one case, the active pharmaceutical ingredient losartan was made in China by Zhejiang HuaHai. The drug was shipped to the Lek Pharmaceutical company in Ljubljana, Slovenia, where it was formulated into pills for Sandoz. The FDA announced in November, 2018, that these pills were recalled because they contained NDEA (N-nitrosodiethylamine), another probable carcinogen.
The People’s Pharmacy Perspective:
We have lost confidence in the FDA’s ability to ensure drug quality and safety. You have heard a lot about redactions of late. We have seen too many redactions in FDA reports. The KHN report is very scary. Sadly, it does not surprise us.
If you would like to learn more about our own investigation into how the FDA oversees generic drugs, you will find details in our book, Top Screwups. We wish health professionals would read the KHN investigation into FDA inspections and get mad!
We would hope that the outrage would last more than a nanosecond. Perhaps if patients, physicians and pharmacists told their politicians that enough is enough, there would be legislative action to ensure the agency is well funded and encouraged to become more proactive in protecting the public. A little more transparency would also be helpful.
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