FDA to Scientific Protein Laboratories Managerement: "We Are Concerned About Your Fundamental Understanding"

Per Ed Silverman on the Pharmalot blog, we hear of new concerns about a company in the supply chain that ended up with adulterated heparin and dead patients.  Before summarizing what the blog reported, let me summarize the case again.

Case Summary

- We have posted several times, recently 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 in 2008, hundreds of such reactions, and now over 80 deaths were reported in the US after intravenous heparin infusions.All the heparin related to these events in the US was sold 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.
- 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.)

The FDA Letter

Pharmalot reported that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) sent a warning letter dated January 20, 2011, to Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, and provided a link to the letter. 

The letter identified continuing serious problems with Scientific Protein Laboratories' operations:
During our July 28, 2010 - September 3, 2010, inspection of your active pharmaceutical ingredient (API) manufacturing facility, Scientific Protein Laboratories LLC, located at 700 E. Main Street, Waunakee, WI, investigators from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) identified significant deviations from Current Good Manufacturing Practice (CGMP) for the manufacture of drugs. These deviations cause your drugs to be adulterated within the meaning of section 501(a)(2)(B) of the Federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act) [21 U.S.C. § 351(a)(2)(B)] in that the methods used in, or the facilities or controls used for, their manufacture, processing, packing, or holding do not conform to, or are not operated or administered in conformity with CGMP.

The firm failed to adequately respond to complaints about its products, including heparin:
Failure to investigate all quality related complaints whether received orally or in writing according to a written procedure.

For example, your firm failed to conduct a formal investigation concerning a complaint identifying potential contamination with Oversulfated Chondroitin Sulfate (OSCS) in a lot of Heparin Sodium USP (lot 1035-0778) on October 9, 2008. Your firm did not initiate a formal investigation until September 9, 2009. In addition, at that time, your firm failed to extend your investigations to other lots of Heparin Sodium USP manufactured using the same crude lot identified with OSCS contamination. Your investigation did not consider the other lot of Heparin Sodium USP that was associated with the same contaminated crude lot until May 26, 2010, eight months after initiating a formal investigation (i.e., lot 1035-0780, which tested negative for OSCS in June 2010). We acknowledge that you initiated a voluntary recall of Heparin Sodium USP that included lots 1035-0778 and 1035-0780 on October 13, 2010.

In your response, your firm notes that you have revised your procedure to state, “Any SPL employee will inform QA of a customer complaint.” However, this response does not address the fundamental issues that allowed the delays in communications and investigation to occur. Your handling of the heparin contamination complaint suggests the need to evaluate training across all departments about the types of information requiring prompt reporting to the quality unit. Further, your response does not address how you will ensure that complaint investigations are handled in a timely manner.

Also, the firm still had problems overseeing the work of companies that supplied it:
Your firm failed to properly evaluate a contract laboratory to ensure GMP compliance of operations occurring at the contract site

Furthermore, it did not use the proper equipment:
Failure to have equipment for the manufacture of APIs of appropriate design for its intended use.

The FDA seemed concerned that company management did not understand its responsibilities:
The manner in which you addressed this problem [the contamination of the heparin] is very worrisome with respect to the timeliness of the investigation, the identification of all potentially affected drugs, and implementing appropriate actions to resolve these issues. Be advised that your firm has the responsibility to ensure the quality, safety, and integrity of its drugs. FDA expects that your corporate management will immediately undertake a comprehensive evaluation of your quality system to ensure comprehensive compliance with CGMP.

In addition,
However, we are concerned about your firm’s fundamental understanding of what is required by your Quality Unit and the regulatory expectations for a firm that enters into agreements with contract testing laboratories. Although you have agreements with other firms that may delineate specific responsibilities to each party, you are ultimately responsible for the quality of your products and the reliability of test results. Regardless of who tests your products or the agreements in place, you are required to manufacture these products in accordance with section 501(a)(2)(B) of the Act to assure their identity, strength, quality, purity, and safety.

In previous discussions of the case of the adulterated heparin I speculated about reasons that the current leaders of health care corporations may have abandoned their most fundamental responsibilities, for example:
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.

The FDA letter to Scientific Protein Laboratories seems to confirm my fear that leaders of health care corporations no longer seem to understand their most elementary responsibilities for providing safe products, in this case, pure, unadulterated drugs. It did not speak to why that may be the case, but certainly does not contradict my theory above.

The letter provides some reassurance that the FDA, at least, has not forgotten the case of the adulterated heparin. However, despite the number of deaths involved, this case has been relatively anechoic, and never fully investigated.

So here I go again: 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).