2nd meningitis outbreak trial set to begin

Alanna Durkin Richer
Associated Press

The Massachusetts pharmacist accused of producing tainted steroids that led to a deadly 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis nationwide, including killing 19 in Michigan, is set to go on trial Tuesday.

Michigan led the nation with at least 264 total cases of meningitis and 19 deaths connected to the steroids made at the New England Compounding Center, or NECC, in Framingham, Massachusetts. Nationwide, 778 individuals were affected, including 76 deaths.

Glenn Chin, the supervisory pharmacist of the now-closed lab, is accused of producing the drugs in unsanitary conditions and sidestepping regulations. The steroids from the facility were distributed to patients around the country, triggering a wave of infections. Officials traced the illnesses back to a batch of preservative-free methylprednisolone aceta, a steroid used to treat lower back pain, produced by NECC.

Clinics in the Michigan counties of Macomb, Livingston, Genesee, and Grand Traverse received the tainted injections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In 2016, a $40 million compensation fund was set up for victims of the meningitis outbreak. The fund was created by the the U.S. Department of Justice through the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office.

Chin is the second major official from the pharmacy company to go on trial. Chin’s case in U.S. District Court in Boston follows the March conviction of co-defendant Barry Cadden, who was president and part owner of the New England company. Cadden was sentenced in June to nine years in prison after being acquitted of second-degree murder charges but convicted on conspiracy and fraud charges.

Chin faces many of the same charges as Cadden as the trial begins in Boston. Chin faces up to life in prison if convicted of all counts of second-degree murder under federal racketeering law.

After watching his mother die from meningitis caused by the contaminated steroids, Scott Shaw of North Carolina is determined to make sure something like that never happens again.

A stiff punishment for Chin may help, he says.

“I believe as surely as I’m talking to you right now that if something isn’t done, we will repeat this again,” the North Carolina man said.

Experts, and Chin’s defense attorney, believe prosecutors have a stronger case against Chin than they did against Cadden

Chin ran the so-called clean rooms where steroid injections were made. He is accused of failing to properly sterilize the drugs, among other things. Chin also faces conspiracy, mail fraud and other charges.

“I’m just a little concerned that the judge and the jury might be a little more harsh on Glenn Chin because he was doing the work in the clean room,” Chin’s attorney, Stephen Weymouth, said.

Throughout Cadden’s trial, the co-founder’s lawyers tried to push the blame onto Chin. Chin intends to point the finger back at Cadden.

Weymouth said he will argue that Chin was essentially a “puppet” for Cadden, who made working in the clean rooms so difficult that “mistakes might have been made.” Cadden was the one calling the shots and pushing the orders to line his own pockets, Weymouth said.

“I think the government would agree with me that the more culpable of these two parties was actually Barry Cadden,” Weymouth said. Chin “did whatever Cadden told him to do.”

Former prosecutor David Schumacher said that defense will only get Chin so far. Chin was ultimately responsible for making sure the drugs were safe enough to be put into people’s bodies, Schumacher said.

“Glenn Chin has quite a bit of exposure here,” said Schumacher, who was deputy chief of the health care fraud unit in the Massachusetts U.S. attorney’s office before joining Hooper, Lundy & Bookman.

The U.S. attorney’s office declined to comment on Chin’s case.

More than 700 people in 20 states were sickened in what’s considered the worst public health crisis in recent U.S. history. The CDC put the death toll at 64 in 2013. Federal officials identified additional victims in their investigation, raising the total number of deaths to 76.

The U.S. Department of Justice Department said in July it had set aside $40 million for victims of the outbreak.

The money, from federal criminal fines, penalties and forfeited bail bonds, was released on Sept. 29 to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office to create and administer the compensation fund.

Through the fund, victims may be eligible for reimbursement of expenses up to $25,000 per crime, according to the AG’s Office. In cases where the victim was catastrophically injured or died as a result of the injections, victims could be eligible for a maximum $50,000.

U.S. Rep. Mike Bishop, R-Rochester, in May sent a letter to the Massachusetts AG’s Office, joined by 11 colleagues including eight from Michigan’s delegation, asking for an update on the disbursement process.

The office responded, saying it had taken “numerous steps” toward fully implementing the compensation program.