A pharmacist from Massachusetts who was allegedly responsible for a nationwide meningitis epidemic was cleared of murder – but, convicted of mail fraud and racketeering, when the verdict was announced on 25 October. 

Glenn Chin, formerly a supervisory pharmacist from the now-defunct New England Compounding Centre (NECC) in Framingham, US, was earlier accused of contaminating the drugs. The mould-tainted steroids infected more than 700 people across 20 states, killing 76 people in the worst American public health crisis.

The verdict came after a separate jury in March found the pharmacy’s co-founder and president, Barry Cadden, 50, guilty of racketeering and fraud charges; but, also cleared him of murder. He was then sentenced to nine years in jail.

"This was never, ever, ever – no matter what these prosecutors tell you -- this was never a murder case,” said Chin’s attorney, Stephen Weymouth.

Claiming the verdict as a victory, the attorney said that prosecutors overreached by charging Chin with second-degree murder acts under federal racketeering law.

The 49-year-old was said to be responsible for mixing the drugs as he oversaw the supposedly clean rooms where the drugs were made. The meningitis outbreak was linked to the medical steroids tainted with virulent fungi, given mostly to people with back pain.

Pharmacist overlooked sanitation for greed

Chin was set to be sentenced in January for charges for 25 deaths in Florida, Indiana, Maryland, Michigan, North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

Prosecutors said Chin had been negligent in observing proper sanitation and sterility, and ignoring findings of mould and other bacteria in the rooms. They also claimed Chin instructed his staff to use expired ingredients.

According to Harold Shaw, FBI special agent-in-charge, Chin “gambled with patients’ lives” by cutting corners to boost productivity and ignoring the warning signs that his production methods were unsafe.

“Hundreds of patients were unnecessarily harmed from his reckless disregard for health and safety regulations,” said Shaw.

“Mr Chin ran NECC’s clean room operations with depraved disregard for human lives,” said acting US Attorney William Weinreb.

“As a licensed pharmacist, Chin took an oath to protect patients, but instead deliberately violated safety regulations.”

“We weren't compounding anymore, we were manufacturing" – Connolly

Scott Shaw of North Carolina said his mother, Elwina had died after she was injected with the contaminated steroids. He expressed disappointment and surprise when the court did not hold Chin responsible for the deaths.

"It was his hand, no doubt, that mixed that medicine that killed mom," expressed Shaw .

However, Chin's attorneys claimed there was no evidence pointing to Chin having tainted the drugs, and argued he could not be blamed for the deaths.

Instead, they blamed Cadden, who they claimed, treated employees poorly and ordered them to cut corners to increase production and profits. When convicted in June, the 50-year-old owner had tearfully apologised to the victims.

In a 60 Minutes story in 2013, the lab technician Joe Connolly said that he had warned his supervisor at NECC that their drugs would harm people before the medication was used on patients.

"The underlying factor is that the company got greedy and overextended and we got sloppy, and something happened," Connolly said.

He explained that Congress exempted them from FDA oversight because, by law, they can make custom-mix drugs. However, after a few years, NECC went national and quantities of drugs increased by a factor of one thousand.

"We became a manufacturer overnight. So, we were basically trying to have the best of both worlds," he said. "We were going to hurt a patient. We were just thinking hurt a patient. We weren't compounding anymore, we were manufacturing."

Following the meningitis outbreak, there have been calls for tighter control and increased regulation of compounding pharmacies which custom-mix medications and supply them directly to hospitals and doctors. MIMS

Read more:
Supervisory pharmacist to go on trial for deaths of 76 people
Pharmacy executive acquitted of 25 patient deaths from meningitis outbreak
14 patients caught serious infections due to poor medical practice in China