Pharmacist tied to deadly 2012 US meningitis outbreak arrested

BOSTON (REUTERS) - US officials on Thursday arrested a pharmacist linked to a 2012 outbreak of meningitis that killed 64 people across the United States as he was boarding a flight to Hong Kong, Justice Department officials said.

Glenn Adam Chin, 46, had been a supervising pharmacist at the now-defunct New England Compounding Center of Framingham, Massachusetts. It produced tainted steroids that sickened 700 people in 20 states in the worst outbreak of fungal meningitis recorded in the United States, officials said. Sixty-four patients died.

Chin has been charged with mail fraud in connection with shipping 17,000 tainted vials, according to the US Attorney's Office in Boston. The contaminated vials were sent to more than 76 facilities in 23 states. The steroid, methylprednisolone acetate, typically was injected into patients to ease back pain.

Authorities accused Chin of instructing pharmacy technicians to mislabel medication to indicate it was properly sterilised and tested.

Medications compounded by NECC were prepared, filled and held under unsanitary conditions, according to an affidavit from Food and Drug Administration Special Agent Benedict Celso.

US prosecutors said they became concerned Chin was a flight risk when he bought tickets for a flight to Hong Kong. "We owe it to the victims in this case not to lose him to a foreign jurisdiction," said George Varghese, a prosecutor with the healthcare fraud unit overseen by US Attorney Carmen Ortiz in Boston, during a hearing in US District Court.

Chief Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal ordered Chin to surrender his passport, post a US$50,000 (S$62,597) unsecured bond and remain under house arrest until Sept 16 when his family returns from Hong Kong.

Paul Shaw, Chin's defence attorney, said the former NECC pharmacist had planned to attend a wedding in Hong Kong, and had no plans to flee the United States. Shaw said Chin is a stay-at-home father for his two children, aged 2 and 6.

Chin is the first person to face criminal charges related to the outbreak, which pushed NECC into bankruptcy and led to stricter national regulation of custom medication makers. If convicted, he could face up to 20 years in prison and a US$250,000 fine.

A federal bankruptcy court in July approved a deal to settle scores of lawsuits against NECC, which could pay out as much as US$100 million to victims and their families and creditors.