Raw Materials Issues Blamed for Shortage of Lethal Injection Drugs

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Sodium thiopental, the drug that the state of Texas so desperately needs for its executions, is approved by the FDA for use only as an anesthetic. On the market for more than 70 years, it has been largely replaced in American hospitals by other anesthesia, according to Chem.Insider Daily, and seems now to have little American medical purpose. Every pharmaceutical maker in the country long ago stopped making it, except one: a $4-billion-a-year, Chicago corporation known as Hospira that carries "Advancing Wellness" as its slogan and goal.

A spokesman there, Dan Rosenberg, explained that Hospira has endorsed use of sodium thiopental in prisons -- but only "for needed medical treatments or surgical procedures." Over and over, the company has had to repeat publicly that "the drug is not indicated for capital punishment, and Hospira does not support its use in this procedure." The prisons have never listened. Hospira's the world's largest maker of injectible generic drugs, and honestly, Rosenberg said, sodium thiopental, is "not a large product for us, not financially very large at all." It's simply the generic drug that his company is most often asked about, especially since last year when Hospira, too, stopped making it.

"Raw material supplier issues," it claimed. To Kentucky officials, the company said that it had lost its sole supplier of the drug's active ingredient. Hospira promised to make the drug available again by July, and after July passed, by October. By late November, as executions around the country were grinding to a halt, the company was saying "it could be in the first quarter of 2011" -- and still refusing to elaborate. What's going on? I called to ask.

"This is a very sensitive issue," Rosenberg said -- and sent me "talking points approved by the legal team." It was the same old stuff -- "a supply issue with Pentothal's active pharmaceutical ingredient." What the supply issue was, Rosenberg wouldn't explain, so I asked the name of the ingredient.

A strange reaction then: He wanted to know what kind of paper the Houston Press was and what type of story I was writing , and he let me know that a general readership would never be interested in something as technical as the active ingredient of a pharmaceutical. I just waited him out. After a while, he sent me an email of the product label.

It was pages long. Rosenberg said the active ingredient had to be listed there somewhere, but no, I said, it wasn't. Check Wikipedia, said he, and when I did, and told him, nope, nothing there, either, he confessed he just wasn't going to tell me the active ingredient of sodium thiopental, because of "competitive issues."

The ingredients of a generic drug are never trade secrets. I finally looked the damn things up myself, and found in the "Official FDA information" on drugs.com that what is commercially sold as sodium thiopental is also known as thiopental sodium and composed of just two ingredients. The first ingredient, sodium carbonate, acts as a stabilizer upon the active ingredient, thiopental sodium. That molecular compund seems not at all hard to find. Texas, for it's executioner's drug, could always go to China.

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