No, this isn't spam, even if you can't tell from the title. The New York Times had a stellar piece in this morning's edition that looked at how the "morning after" pill is now exclusively made in China, by a company linked to serious poisonings from leukemia and cancer pills. This follows on an equally important story from earlier this week about the FDA's inability to guarantee drug safety:
Computer systems at the drug agency are so inadequate that it can only guess the number of the plants, and it cannot produce a list of those that have not been inspected. The situation is particularly dire in China, which has more drug and device plants than any other foreign nation but where F.D.A. inspections are few.
Because the factory profiled in today's story exports to the US and many other countries, consumer advocates, including our own Dr. Sid Wolfe, are saying, "Every one of these plants should be immediately inspected." I would add to that that we need to overhaul our trade policy to allow our regulatory authorities to bar imports from any country it chooses without running afoul of WTO rules that limit our ability to do this.
Meanwhile, the pharmaceutical industry has been waging a major campaign to push for ever stronger government enforced monopoly patent protectionism and barriers to drug reimportation - a major reason why drug prices in the US are so high. They've been using the boogie man of drug safety problems to keep us from importing from Canada, or Australia. Egats! Not Canada! What this story shows is that we're already as exposed as anyone in Canada could be to the risks from the current drug production system, while not benefiting from the substantial cost savings in their system.
But the story really shows how far we have to go. As an aside, there's been an epidemic here in Global Trade Watch land, with virtually all of our staff coming down with some bug or another that has kept us from coming into work. I can't speak for the others, but I've been spending my time away from the office watching, well, "The Office," and my favoritist Christmas gift, Monty Python's Flying Circus 16-ton Megaset. One of the most famous sketches from the show is the so-called "Dead Parrot sketch," where a salesman attempts every implausible cover-up for the fact of having sold a customer an "ex-parrot":
The explanation of Chinese overseers sounds a lot like this:
Describing the cover-up at the factory, Ms. Zhou, the regulator who led the investigation, said workers did not tell investigators that vincristine sulfate — a drug too toxic for use in spinal injections — had been stored in a refrigerator with materials for other drugs.
“At the time, we didn’t think they had lied to us,” Ms. Zhou said. The deception sent investigators on a two-month hunt for other possible causes of the adverse reactions. “If they had been open about the vincristine sulfate in the beginning, maybe fewer people would have been harmed,” she added...
Mr. Zheng at Peking University said that producing multiple drugs in a single workshop was risky, but that some Chinese companies saw it as a way to save money. “It was an accident,” he said of the Hualian case. “But it was bound to happen.”
That's right, before you buy a parrot, it's your responsibility to ask if it's dead. Corporations simply can't be held responsible for selling you products that will kill you if you don't first ask if they'll kill you. Caveat emptor b4 you dead murderedod. Duh.
In short, it's a complex issue, and the case shows we should be having a national discussion about the costs and regulation surrounding drug safety, and where it makes sense to produce these and other products. Some more international redundancy would seem to be only prudent. Couldn't the morning after pill be made in multiple locations? Should drug makers be able to make pills that cost pennies and sell them to us for hundreds of dollars, while cutting corners on safety to save pennies that harm people? Is it time to overhaul the bizarre incentives that are shaping this protected industry?