Boston, Mass. The head of a now-defunct drug compounding firm blamed for the deaths of 76 patients who received fungus-contaminated steroid injections treated the company as his own personal ATM machine, Assistant U.S. Attorney George P. Varghese told jurors yesterday.
In opening arguments in the case against pharmacist Barry Cadden, who is facing charges of 25 counts of second-degree murder, Mr. Varghese said Mr. Cadden placed profits over patients and literally made millions in the process.
"NECC was Barry Cadden's baby" said Mr. Varghese.
Bruce Singal, Mr. Cadden's lawyer, countered by telling jurors that Mr. Varghese was distorting the truth and there was no evidence of murder.
Acknowledging that the patients' deaths were "shocking to say the least," Mr. Singal said Mr. Cadden was trying to do the right thing and displayed emails in which Mr. Cadden wanted to investigate and correct any errors.
The opening arguments before U.S. District Judge Richard G. Stearns centered on the 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak caused by tainted spinal steroids shipped from the New England Compounding Center in Framingham, Mass. According to court documents, 778 patients were sickened in the outbreak.
Mr. Cadden is specifically charged with second-degree murder in the deaths of 25 patients. Mr. Varghese displayed pictures of those victims one by one, including an Ocala, Fla., man, who had lived "a very healthy lifestyle" and was in good health until he was injected with methylprednisolone acetate produced by NECC.
Even as the outbreak was unfolding, Mr. Cadden was not forthcoming when state and federal regulators first contacted him, said Mr. Varghese. Meanwhile, as more victims were sickened, doctors were left scrambling for a diagnosis.
"Every single day mattered," Mr. Varghese charged, but "Cadden didn't tell the truth."
The prosecutor said he would be presenting evidence of multiple incidences of contamination of NECC products, including the use of outdated chemicals to produce a pediatric cancer drug. He said in another case NECC issued doses of a numbing drug for patients undergoing cataract surgery at a Boston hospital, but the numbing agent was completely missing.
Mr. Singal disputed both of those examples, contending that NECC produced the cancer drugs because doctors were begging for it. And, he said, the chemical when tested proved 97% effective regardless of the age of its components. He said Mr. Cadden himself ordered an inquiry into the incident with the eye-numbing agent.
Mr. Singal also displayed a copy of an email in which Mr. Cadden was critical of an outside testing firm that had not been doing its job. And Mr. Singal said far from failing to notify officials, Mr. Cadden had personally called a hospital administrator to warn that a suspect drug should be set aside and placed "in quarantine." He played a recording of that phone call for jurors.
He read from an email in which Mr. Cadden warned employees not to "pencil whip" environmental reviews. Some NECC employees, said Mr. Singal, were trying to trick Mr. Cadden.
Mr. Singal also said that NECC in fact had an excellent record of complying with sanitary and environmental standards. "Of course mistakes were made," said Mr. Singal, "but they weren't criminal. They weren't murder."
He said that Mr. Varghese had implied that Mr. Cadden was "the owner" of NECC when in fact he only owned 17.5%. His wife, Lisa, had an equal share, but the majority owner, Mr. Cadden's sister-in-law, Carla Conigliaro, held 55%.
Mr. Roche, a former reporter for the Baltimore Sun and Nashville Tennessean, is covering the NECC trial in Boston for Outpatient Surgery.