PharmExec Blog

Times’ Drug-Supply Snoops Bag a Pulitzer

New York TimesThe New York Times likes to give the drug industry a hard time with its (unbranded) scandal of the week series—off-label promoting, suppressing data, that sort of thing. But when the 2008 Pulitzer Prizes were handed out on Monday, the winner for best investigative reporting was a series by the Times that even its harshest pharma critics have to appreciate.

Called “The Toxic Pipeline,” the series is a truly groundbreaking investigation into the counterfeit, adulterated, and dangerous drugs that are made in China and sold to an unsuspecting world. Reporters Walt Bogdanich and Jake Hooker spent the better part of the past year tracking the drug industry’s global supply chain across four continents to locate its faulty links where no regulation of corrupt officials facilitate a crisis level of contamination.

Wiith Hooker working at the source of the problem—in the part of China called chemical country, home to countless unregulated makers of drug ingredients—Bogdanich traveled to Panama, where a tainted cough-syrup ingredient made resulted in a mass poisoning and 350 deaths; to the free-trade zone of Dubai, where products made in China are repackaged or relabeled to erase their provenance; and to Milan, where he found 82 unlicensed Chinese chemical companies, several of them charged with counterfeiting, marketing their services at the biggest annual trade show for makers of pharma ingredients.

Right in the middle of the series, FDA announced that Baxter International’s heparin was killing people—and the Times team was all over the story. With Hooker already deep in chemical country, they were able to track the supply chain back from the Shanghai factory to the tiny village suppliers who process the pig intestines, painting an unforgettable picture of this anything-goes economy with which Big Pharma does more and more business. They dropped a bombshell or two, such as getting the response of China’s FDA: Not our problem.

They also revealed how our own FDA’s investigation into the mess was foundering because—contrary to the agency’s sunny public reassurances that China was cooperating fully—it could not gain, or would not demand, access to the same upstream supply chain that the Times had already covered.

The reporters even beat FDA in IDing the actual contaminant: a molecule apparently manipulated to look and act like heparin, the result apparently of a highly sophisticated—and intentional—adulteration that could easily deceive Baxter’s controls. FDA scrambled to make the same announcement hours after the Times story broke.

Just yesterday, the agency announced that there have been five times as many heparin-related deaths (103) than it had previously reported.

For drugmakers and consumers alike, it’s hard to know which of the series’ revelations is most disturbing: that Chinese drug counterfeiters have achieved such a high level of technical prowess? Or that our own FDA seems to be cowed by, and almost covering up for, China? But we have The New York Times to thank for alerting us—and reminding us of the importance of good, old-fashioned journalism.

Check out the five-part series, “The Toxic Pipeline,” on the New York Times Web site.

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  1. Posted April 9, 2008 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

    Agreed. These reporters did an admirable job reporting on the dangers of diversion and counterfeits infiltrating the legitimate supply chain.

    So, will the New York Times be intellectually honest and repudiate its ongoing support for importation from Canada (wherever)?

    Sadly, I doubt it.


  2. Charles
    Posted April 17, 2008 at 3:09 pm | Permalink

    Adam, good question regarding Canada, but I have a feeling that the same quality of drugs we get here in the Sattes is pretty much the same as in Canada. I am less concerned about Canada. If the Canadians through their subsidized healthcare system want to subsidize us, more power to them, it’s their taxes.

    On a different note, whether it be drugs, watches, cd’s, designer bags-China has been duping us for years. Our legislators won’t do anything significant to China because of the cheap labor used to make our-t-shirts, jeans, dinnerware etc.etc. It will only be when China using our own money, turns off the supply of oil that we may attempt to do something. All the rest-is noise-from empty headed officials.

  3. Posted April 18, 2008 at 12:25 pm | Permalink


    I’m not worried about the quality of Canadian drugs per se. instead, I fear that diverters and criminals will quickly take advantage of a more porous supply chain.

    Importation is nothing more than diversion. And drug diversion creates openings for counterfeits to get into the hands of consumers. In fact, diversion is the entry point for *every* case investigated by the FDA involving counterfeit drugs going into legitimate pharmacies.

    Plus, importation won’t save money for consumers anyway. See my article called “Importation Illusions.”


  4. Charles
    Posted April 21, 2008 at 1:16 pm | Permalink

    Read your article and just printed it out. thanks for the tip.
    From what I know, you nailed a number of excellent points applicable to a number of industries, unfortunately-the pharma industry involves more than dollars, diversion and counterfeitters-it involves peoples lives.
    Money speaks and as long as the voice is loud, we will turn our heads to the issues as you have mentioned.

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