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Prescription: Washington

FDA Starts New Light-Touch Inspections For Some Imports

Stephen Barlas

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is trying to kill two birds with one stone with its new Secure Supply Chain Pilot Program (SSCPP).1 Getting under way after about five years of contemplation, the program will allow select manufacturers to bring in both raw materials, called active pharmaceutical ingredients (API), and finished drugs with minimal inspection at U.S. ports. This will allow the FDA to focus import inspections on what we’ll call, for want of a better term, “more suspect” manufacturers. At the same time, the companies chosen for the SSCPP will presumably be able to supply their drugs—each company has up to five products designated in the program—to retail and hospital pharmacies on a much more predetermined schedule. Shipments will not get waylaid by customs officials.

The FDA program is part of the agency’s effort to reorient its inspection program toward potentially counterfeit drugs. The FDA estimates that nearly 40% of finished drugs and nearly 80% of active ingredients come from overseas sources. At the same time it is implementing the SSCPP, the agency is rushing to put the first aspects of a new drug-tracking system in place. That system was authorized by the Drug Quality and Security Act signed last November by President Obama.2 It will eventually require drug companies to track and trace their products, and it should make the agency’s job easier when it comes to ensuring the safety and security of imported drugs and APIs.

The SSCPP and the track-and-trace program are unrelated legally, but they have a similar objective: keeping counterfeit drugs out of the U.S.

The Wall Street Journal carried a story on April 8 detailing one of the recent horrors. FDA investigators traced the source of cancer drugs contaminated by mold and water to a Turkish company. Some of the drugs were fake; others were legitimate but were manufactured for sale in foreign countries and weren’t licensed for U.S. sale by the FDA, according to federal prosecutors in Arizona who are working on the case. The discovery of fake drugs was hardly unusual. Two years ago, for instance, fake copies of Roche Holding AG’s Avastin were found in the U.S.

The SSCPP was authorized by the Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act (FDASIA), signed into law on July 9, 2012.3 The FDA, on its own administrative authority, had announced the program back in January 2009, but nothing ever happened. The agency presumably felt it needed congressional authorization. That came in the form of Section 713 of FDASIA, which gave the FDA a series of new authorities in the area of import enforcement.

For example, FDASIA authorizes the FDA to require the submission of drug compliance information as a condition of granting admission to imported drugs. It states that in issuing the implementing regulations, the FDA “may, as appropriate, take into account differences among importers and types of imports, and based on the level of risk posed by the imported drug, provide for expedited clearance for those importers that volunteer to participate in partnership programs for highly compliant companies and pass a review of internal controls. …”

The FDA had initially expected to include up to 100 companies in the SSCPP pilot program. Only 13 were selected. Christopher Kelly, an FDA spokesman, says only 15 companies applied. It is not clear whether this small number was the result of manufacturers viewing the program as unappetizing, the FDA setting inclusion requirements too high, or something else. Clearly, though, the program seems very limited.

The companies accepted into the program are: AbbVie, Inc.; Allergan, Inc.; Astellas U.S. Technologies, Inc.; Bristol-Myers Squibb Company; Celgene Corporation; GE Healthcare, Inc.; Glaxo-SmithKline, LLC; Merck Sharp & Dohme Corporation; Mylan Pharmaceuticals, Inc.; Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation; Pfizer, Inc.; Teva Pharmaceuticals USA, Inc.; and Watson Laboratories, Inc.4 Kelly says the lists of products designated for each company to import under the SSCPP are “commercial confidential” and not publicly available.

When program requirements were first proposed, a number of companies argued against some of the FDA’s intentions. For example, the agency said it expected to “regularly examine records and review whether participants in the pilot program continue to meet the program’s criteria.” Susie Hoeger, Director of Global Trade Compliance & Policy at Abbott, Inc., argued, “We see no benefit in the ‘regular examination of records’ except on a random basis to ensure compliance. The objective must be a reduction in document review—not the status quo. Furthermore, random inspection should be systematic and upon prior notification to the importer.”

The pilot program does not include Abbott but does include AbbVie, which was broken off from Abbott in January 2013.

Industry executives who participated in an FDA workshop in 2013, meant to help the agency determine application requirements, declined to comment on why the number of participants is limited. Reid Graves was there on behalf of Six Degrees Counterfeit Prevention, LLC. Pfizer subsequently hired him to work on drug serialization. Graves demurred when asked to comment.

Julie Masow, a spokeswoman for Novartis, provided this statement: “Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation supports an expedited entry process for the importation of drug products into the United States and is pleased to be participating in the Food and Drug Administration’s Secure Supply Chain Pilot Program to help develop this process.”

Ostensibly, the other 12 companies are just as pleased. But wouldn’t pharmacists be pleased, too, to know exactly which drugs are part of the SSCPP program and, more importantly, which are not?


  1. Food and Drug Administration. Secure Supply Chain Pilot Program. Federal Register 2013;78;(161):51192–51194.Available at: Accessed April 25, 2014.
  2. Government Printing Office. Drug Quality and Security Act 2013;Available at: Accessed April 25, 2014
  3. Government Printing Office. Food and Drug Administration Safety and Innovation Act 2012;Available at: Accessed April 25, 2014
  4. Food and Drug Administration. FDA initiates the Secure Supply Chain Pilot Program to enhance security of imported drugs [News Release] 2014;Available at: Accessed April 25, 2014