Execution drug still available after Lundbeck shuns ‘end user’ agreements
Drug produced by Danish pharmaceutical company Lundbeck is being used to execute prisoners – Human rights organisation Reprieve says there is little it can do.
Death-row inmates in the US are to be executed using an anti-epilepsy drug produced by Lundbeck, after the Copenhagen-based company last week decided against forcing its distributors to sign contracts preventing them from supplying prisons.
Lundbeck has already expressed shock that its product is set to be used in executions and has written letters to officials in US states planning to use the drug for executions saying they are “adamantly opposed to the use of Nembutal for the purpose of capital punishment”.
“We urge you to discontinue the use of Nembutal in the execution of prisoners in your state because it contradicts everything we are in business to do – provide therapies that improve people’s lives.”
Lundbeck holds the only license to manufacture pentobarbital in the US, where it is marketed as Nembutal and used to treat seizures.
However Lundbeck has been criticised by human rights organisations Reprieve and Amnesty International who believe ‘end user’ agreements are a feasible way to prevent importers from selling the drug to prisons for use in executions.
But speaking to The Copenhagen Post, Mads Kronborg, a Lundbeck spokesperson, said the company could not ask a distributor to sign such an agreement because there was no way to guarantee the end usage of the product.
“But we are not just sitting on our hands. We have been looking into the problem and there’s nothing that we can do to control where the product ends up.”
However British-based Reprieve maintains that ‘end user’ agreements are a viable means of controlling the drug’s distribution.
Citing legal precedents, Reprieve states that American “law will enforce clauses that restrict a purchaser’s freedom to distribute a product, so long as the restriction is reasonable and does not conflict with public policy”.
Reprieve investigator, Maya Foa, argued that even if there might be trouble enforcing the agreements, it was still better than none at all.
“They’re saying that because the agreements won’t be 100 percent effective there’s no point in having them and that the prisons will just find an alternative. But even if it isn’t totally successful, Lundbeck could still lead the way. This is an effective option to stop their drug from being used to kill people.”
“We will continue to put pressure on them because they are accountable.”
Amnesty International suggested Lundbeck ask the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to step in.
Amnesty spokesperson Ole Hoft-Lund said: “So far they haven’t made any direct contact with the FDA. We think contacting them could be a way out and make their point that this drug is supposed to be used for sick people and not for executions.”
“We support Reprieve’s idea of ‘end user’ agreements and want Lundbeck to consider any means to stop this misuse.”
Execution by lethal injection is carried out by strapping the victim to a gurney before injecting the individual typically with three different drugs – an anaesthetic to render them unconscious followed by a muscle relaxant to stop breathing and a final drug to bring on cardiac arrest.
Sodium thiopental is usually used as the initial anaesthetic and has also been used singularly in high doses to execute prisoners.
But stocks of thiopental dried up earlier this year when manufacturers across Europe were restricted from exporting the drug to the US for use in executions. This occurred after the sole American manufacturer, Hospira, discontinued its production after objecting to its use in capital punishment.
The use of pentobarbital as a replacement has drawn concerns, however, with Dr David Waisel, Associate Professor of Anaesthesia at Harvard Medical School, who said: “The use of pentobarbital as an agent to induce anesthesia has no clinical history [and] puts the inmate at risk of serious undue pain and suffering.”
Despite its disquieting new use, Lundbeck has been unwilling to discontinue its production after appeals from the medical industry.
“We can’t withdraw the product because it is used for treating severe epilepsy and sometimes it’s the only treatment option,” said Kronborg. “All we can do is write to the prisons urging them to stop misusing using our product which was designed to help sick people.
“It’s a really unfortunate situation.”
Originally published in the Copenhagen Post