The US Food & Drug Administration's investigation into adverse reactions associated with Baxter's now-recalled heparin products is a major public health priority and a growing political liability for the agency.
It may also become another strain on relations between the US and China.
FDA is now confident that the reactions were indeed caused by a contaminant introduced into the raw material used by Baxter and its suppliers to produce heparin, a contaminant that FDA suspects was introduced deliberately somewhere early in the supply chain in China. The agency convened the latest in a serious of media conference calls April 22 to outline its findings so far. (Click here to read coverage of the conference call in PharmAsia News.)
Chinese regulators disagree, and called their own press conference at the Chinese embassy in Washington to make their position clear. They believe the problem is more likely the result of impurities introduced in the final production processes in the US, and plan to inspect Baxter's facilities themselves. (Here is The Washington Post's coverage of the press conference.)
Baxter, understandably, agrees with FDA's interpretation of events thus far. Assuming FDA is correct, Baxter's own liability for the adverse events will be less obvious: the company itself is presumably a victim of whomever is responsible for introducing the contaminant. (Though, as we have noted previously, the US Food Drug & Cosmetic Act is a strict liability statute that at least in theory allows for the punishment of Baxter simple because it ultimately introduced a tainted a drug.)
But the issue is a double-edged sword for the biopharmaceutical industry. If indeed the contaminant turns out to be a case of economic fraud initiated by an unscrupulous business in China, that may help Baxter, but it will also fuel the misgivings of many US consumers and politicians about the globalization of trade--and especially concerns about the perceived dangers of outsourcing to China.
The Democratic Presidential campaign is increasingly sounding some protectionist themes, and the political anxiety about the rise of China as an economic rival to the US is palpable. Then there is the sensitivity of the Chinese government to its global reputation, including outrage at the protests surrounding the Olympic torch relay.
But we do know this: global pharmaceutical corporations--and investors seeking opportunities in emerging markets--have to factor in the political dynamics of globalization into their planning. If protectionists on either side win out, plenty of players in the biopharma sectors will be among the losers.