Glenn Chin, the former pharmacist who worked at the New England Compounding Center (NECC) was sentenced Wednesday to eight years in prison. Drugs made on his watch were responsible for a fungal meningitis outbreak that killed dozens and sickened hundreds nationwide.
The sentencing concludes a major chapter in the nation’s deadliest outbreak caused by tainted medications.
Health experts became concerned about an outbreak in September 2012 when a man in Tennessee suddenly fell ill. His condition rapidly got worse, and he soon died. Other people in the area also started mysteriously dying.
At the time, Walter Roche was the investigative editor at a local newspaper, The Tennessean. “It was really kind of scary, people were literally dropping dead,” said Roche. “Nobody knew what the cause was.”
It was happening in other states, too: Michigan, Indiana, Virginia and New Jersey, among others. According to federal officials, 76 people died and nearly 800 fell ill, many of whom still struggle with debilitating health consequences.
However, Roche said, the numbers may be even higher. He points to civil litigation that suggests a couple thousand people have been affected. He says the official count “is probably vastly underestimated because I suspect that a lot of people died and got buried before they even knew it was this.”
Health officials slowly pieced together what happened. Their investigation led them to the New England Compounding Center in Framingham. The compounding pharmacy had made pain medications in a dirty lab, shipping steroid injections contaminated with mold to clinics all over the country. When NECC’s drugs were injected into people’s spines, it caused fungal meningitis.
“We began to find very quickly that this company had a very checkered past and had run into problems all over the country,” said Roche. The compounding pharmacy had exploited gaps between federal rules and state regulations.
Federal prosecutors argued two people were largely to blame: Barry Cadden, NECC’s co-founder and president, and Glenn Chin, the supervising pharmacist.
Both Cadden and Chin were charged with second-degree murder, along with racketeering, conspiracy and mail fraud.
In separate trials, federal prosecutors argued that the men put profit and ambition above patient safety. Prosecutors said the men knew their drugs could be deadly. Cadden’s defense attorneys argued he was unaware that the labs were unclean, and as soon as he found out, he acted quickly. Chin’s lawyers said he was under enormous pressure and just following his boss’ guidance.
In the end, jurors in both trials were only partly convinced.
“No one will be held accountable for murder,” said Daniel Medwed, a Northeastern University law professor and WGBH legal analyst who has been following the case.
Jurors cleared Cadden and Chin on all murder counts but convicted them on the lesser charges. Last year, a judge sentenced Cadden to nine years in prison. Federal prosecutors have asked that Chin be sentenced to 35 years. Instead, he received eight years.
Medwed said legal experts were carefully watching to see whether Cadden or Chin would serve more time.
“On the one hand, the idea is Chin was more responsible because he was actually in the room. He was in a position to directly stop the unsanitary practices," Medwed said. "But on the other hand, there’s an argument that he’s less responsible because he wasn’t the boss. And he was just acting at the direction of a very aggressive and ambitious CEO.”
Medwed added legal experts wonder whether the sentences will be long enough to deter others in compounding pharmacies from skirting regulations.
Roche said the victims were disappointed. “The victims are for the most part very unhappy with the way the trials have turned out. They are upset that these murder charges evaporated," he said.
Roche said there’s a feeling among victims he’s talked to that the public has moved on and nobody is paying a price for the deaths and the damage.
Chin must report to prison on March 14.
This story has been updated to include new information.