The Food and Drug Administration may no longer be able to alleviate shortages in vital drugs by permitting the import of unapproved medicines following a decision by the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. The ruling of July 23, 2013 also raises broader questions about when and how FDA can “exercise regulatory discretion” in deciding certain policy and enforcement issues.
According to a unanimous decision by a three-judge panel, FDA’s action to permit import of thiopental from an unregistered foreign establishment was “not in accordance with law,” even though the aim was to address the shortage of a needed medicine. The ruling in Cook et al v. FDA (case No. 12-5176), which upholds a previous decision by a federal district court, involves a shortage of thiopental sodium, which created serious problems for state law enforcement officials seeking to use it in delivering lethal injections. A group of death row inmates from three states filed suit, claiming that FDA violated the law by improperly allowing shipments of a misbranded and unapproved new drug to enter the U.S.
The Appeals Court specifically rejected FDA’s argument that it can legally address drug shortages by permitting the import of drugs approved by other regulatory authorities. Among its various tools for combating serious short supply situations, FDA also cites authority to allow distribution of a product suffering from quality problems, but found by the agency to “not cause undue risk to patients.” Other FDA relief strategies are to work with sponsors to resolve manufacturing issues, expedite inspections and reviews of short supply products, identify additional manufacturers willing to initiate or increase production, extend product expiration dates, and help firms qualify new sources of raw materials.
FDA has permitted unapproved imports 17 times in recent years, according to its announcement in May on authorizing the import of injectable total parenteral nutrition (TPN) solutions. These products are desperately needed by hospitals to treat premature infants unable to eat or drink, as well as cancer patients undergoing gastrointestinal surgeries. In this case, FDA authorized Fresenius Kabi USA to import TPN products from its Norway plant. The agency took this step after American Regent/Luitpold shut down operations at the end of 2012 to address quality issues that left particulate matter in injectable products. In this and other cases, FDA says that it evaluates the overseas drug to ensure that it is of adequate quality and informs doctors of the status of the imported product.
The July Appeals court ruling is regarded as a victory for death penalty opponents, who had pressured other manufacturers to discontinue production of thiopental and other “death drugs.” Yet state officials had urged FDA to appeal last year’s district court ruling in order to obtain needed supplies to carry out executions according to law. In that earlier lower decision, the judge accused FDA of hypocrisy, pointing out that the agency prevents consumers from purchasing medicines over the Internet because it deems the products misbranded and unapproved. The Appeals Court agreed, noting that FDA can address specific shortages through other strategies, such as designating an unapproved foreign drug as investigational to allow its importation.
This legal challenge to FDA use of enforcement discretion also could provide support for K-V Pharmaceuticals, which is challenging FDA’s failure to block competitors from producing the pre-term birth drug Makena (hydroxyprogesterone caproate injection). In this case, explains attorney Kurt Karst of Hyman, Phelps & McNamara, the D.C. District Court has sided with FDA, stating that the agency has the right to refuse to take action to stop pharmacy compounding of the drug. Kurt speculates in the FDA Law Blog that the recent Cook case will have a “huge effect” on how it deals with drug shortages [see www.fdalawblog.net July 23, 2013].