Chinese regulators freeze sales of drugs with toxic capsules

Another scandal is roiling China's burgeoning pharma industry. The country's drug watchdog has banned the sale of 13 drugs that include traditional Chinese meds and antibiotics that are made with capsules containing toxic levels of chromium, and authorities in the country have already nabbed 22 suspects linked with the sale and production of the tainted treatments, China's Xinhua reported Monday, citing TV reports.

The root problem with the capsules, according to reports, is the use of industrial-grade gelatin rather than the food-grade gelatin for the drugs in question. The industrial gelatin was made from scrap leather that contains high amounts of chromium--which is associated with increased cancer risk--used in the leather tanning process, InPharm reported. Drugs with the tainted capsules were distributed only in China, where citizens voiced their discontent about their country's pharma industry via the Internet.   

Greed and political forces appear to be factors in the scandal, according to analysts interviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Politicians across China are under pressure to lower drug costs as the country implements a massive healthcare coverage overhaul, and some have curried favor with the central government after putting drug supplier contracts for hospitals out to bid. Drug suppliers, whose profit margins are thinning as they lower their prices, are suspected of cutting corners on quality. Presumably, these factors underpin this most recent scandal.

Some Chinese drug manufacturers, of course, have been put on watch lists in the U.S. for their alleged roles in supplying tainted ingredients that were found in supplies of heparin. Pfizer ($PFE), which isn't impacted by the tainted capsules, and many other drugmakers based in the U.S. sell drugs made in China or with ingredients from suppliers in the country, and a Pfizer spokesperson told the WSJ that the company has multiple mechanisms in place to maintain quality standards for the products.

To combat shoddy manufacturing, the Chinese government has set quality standards for drugmakers in the country. Still, the political and economic realities that analysts speculated led to the chromium-laden capsules remain in place.

- read The Wall Street Journal article
- check out InPharm's report
- see the Telegraph's report
- and Xinhua's news item