FDA is Using Innovative Methods to Prevent Illegal Products with Hidden Drug Ingredients from Entering the United States

By: Scott Gottlieb, M.D., Melinda K. Plaisier, M.S.W., and Michael Kopcha, Ph.D., R.Ph.

One of the Food and Drug Administration’s important public health functions is to closely monitor the FDA-regulated products arriving at the nation’s international mail facilities (IMFs) every day to prevent unsafe, counterfeit, and unapproved products from entering the country. This sometimes includes interdiction of illicit products, in support of the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP).

Dr. Scott Gottlieb

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Given the volume of mail, the increasing sophistication of bad actors, and the amount of time it takes to inspect just one package, this is an increasingly challenging task. FDA is taking new steps to increase the scope and effectiveness of this mission. One tool that FDA has deployed is advanced screening technologies that can allow FDA inspectors to screen packages containing suspected drug products more efficiently and reliably.

According to a January 2018 report by the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, in just three years from 2013 to 2015, the number of packages processed by the nation’s nine IMFs nearly doubled. Today, these combined facilities receive more than 275 million packages a year. Most of the mail arrives without advanced or specific identifying information. As a consequence, we have no way of knowing exactly how many packages contain FDA-regulated products.

What we do know is that every year thousands of packages are found to contain FDA-regulated products and a surprising percentage of those products are illegal. These products come in all different shapes and forms – some with sophisticated packaging and others in nondescript plastic bags.

They include unapproved products; counterfeit or substandard drugs; and purported dietary supplements being sold for weight loss, sexual enhancement, bodybuilding or pain relief. Many products promoted as dietary supplements contain potentially dangerous undeclared drug ingredients. Any package initially suspected of containing controlled substances is immediately referred to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. Still, FDA is seeing an increase in the number of packages containing opioids including tramadol, codeine and morphine, making FDA’s investigators the last line of defense for drugs that may not be easily identified as narcotics.

Melinda Plaisier

Melinda K. Plaisier, M.S.W., FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs

Last year, FDA increased the number of investigators it has in the IMFs from 8 to 22 full time employees; taking the number of packages FDA is able to open and screen from 10,000 a year to 40,000. These are packages that our partners at CBP have flagged for additional screening in order to intercept and detail what are believed to be nefarious products prior to refusal of admission and possible destruction.

To do so, based on current laws, FDA must first establish that the products are drugs based on their intended use, then determine if the drug is subject to refusal of admission. This requires documenting the contents, which can be a labor-intensive process. Some of the packages may contain loose pills without any packaging or contain hundreds of small internal packages. Screening a single package can take about 20 minutes, while packages that contain multiple products or large quantities can take much longer. This limits the number of packages that FDA is able to inspect. CBP will only pull for inspection the number of packages that FDA is able to complete in a given day. CBP and FDA target the highest risk packages for physical inspection. This is where good intelligence work is key. But packages that can’t undergo a physical inspection will typically be sent on to their recipient. The more that FDA can improve the efficiency of its process, its authorities, and the tools that it uses to evaluate products; the more higher-risk packages that the agency is able to subject to vetting.

Although the agency’s professional staff works hard to examine and document suspicious contents, FDA investigators are only able to inspect a fraction of the incoming international mail packages. It’s estimated that FDA is able to physically inspect less than 0.06 percent of the packages that are presumed to contain drug products that are shipped through the IMFs. Recognizing these hurdles, we’re doing all we can by increasing our existing resources, working more efficiently and identifying innovative ways to extend our efforts.

In addition to tripling the size of our staff, we’ve invested in, and would like to enhance, our screening equipment at the IMF locations and laboratory equipment for the forensic confirmations needed – all of which serves to increase efficiency and strengthen our ability to more quickly identify and assess suspect products entering through IMFs. FDA’s current analytical process requires sending samples to an FDA laboratory for analysis. It can take days or weeks to get results and during that time products would have to be held within the IMF’s limited space, restricting the number of products that can be tested by FDA.

Michael Kopcha

Michael Kopcha, Ph.D., R.Ph., Director, Office of Pharmaceutical Quality at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

One of the most promising technical developments is the successful use of various portable screening devices that will allow us to rapidly test for unsafe ingredients at the IMFs with similar reliability and accuracy as the current laboratory methods. FDA recently concluded a successful six-month pilot at two IMFs, testing whether we might be able to increase the number of packages we screen by making use of a portable screening device called an ion mobility spectrometer. This is the same technology used by airport security to swipe your luggage for explosives and by prisons to screen visitors for illegal narcotics. The device works by comparing the chemical signature of the unknown substance against the chemical signatures of known compounds in a process that takes less than 30 seconds.

For the pilot, the device was loaded with a custom-built library of pharmaceutical compounds to test whether products marketed for weight loss and sexual enhancement contained undeclared drug compounds such as sibutramine, phenolphthalein and sildenafil. These compounds have significant safety concerns and are often counterfeited; and are commonly found within packages coming into the IMFs. When criminals secretly spike products with these compounds, consumers do not know that they are at higher risk of harm from the products.

An astonishing 65 percent of the samples we screened tested positive for the presence of undeclared pharmaceutical ingredients, results that were confirmed in a FDA laboratory. Based on these results, we’re able to demonstrate that the device was reliable, efficient, and produced valid results. As a result of this pilot, we’ve decided to expand the use of this new technology and add devices at two additional IMFs. Our aim is to refine our use of this device, and eventually install it in all nine of our IMF facilities so that our staff can more quickly determine whether products contain undeclared drug ingredients.

This is a significant milestone.

The scanner’s methods are flexible enough to be used to detect the presence of an active ingredient in a drug product or to identify active ingredients in counterfeit drug products, simply by adding new pharmaceutical libraries developed by FDA laboratories. This will allow the agency to more quickly identify and respond to emerging issues. Already we’re actively working on developing an opioid screening method for the device. We hope to initiate a pilot study using this method very soon.

As we advance the science behind rapid, deployable, screening methods, we aim to shift the paradigm of how FDA screens products; increasing the effectiveness of our oversight. It’s an example of the creative measures we’re taking to keep harmful products out of the U.S. marketplace.

Scott Gottlieb, M.D., is Commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration

Melinda K. Plaisier, M.S.W., is FDA’s Associate Commissioner for Regulatory Affairs

Michael Kopcha, Ph.D., R.Ph., is Director, Office of Pharmaceutical Quality, at FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research

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