US supplier halts manufacture of execution drug

By staff writers
October 19, 2011

The Israeli pharmaceutical company Teva is the latest firm to halt the manufacture of drugs used in US executions. The company has announced that it is to stop making pancuronium bromide, the second drug in the three-part lethal injection ‘cocktail’ used by the majority of states which have the death penalty. The company's decision leaves the Illinois based pharmaceutical company Hospira as the only supplier of pancuronium to US death rows.

Teva is the latest firm to have halted or restricted the supply of execution drugs. The Danish based company Lundbeck took steps earlier this year to prevent the supply of their drugs to US death rows. Similar action has also been taken by the Indian supplier, Kayem Pharma; Austrian manufacturer, Sandoz; and by the UK-based distributor, Dream Pharma.

Teva has assured Clive Stafford Smith, Director of the legal action charity Reprieve, that the company currently has “no [pancuronium bromide] on the market” and “no plans to resume manufacturing of this product.”

Reprieve has welcomed the news that Teva is no longer supplying pancuronium bromide for executions. The drug is used to paralyse the prisoner, which is a purely cosmetic step in the process, designed to avoid upsetting witnesses with signs of the prisoner suffering.

The US Supreme Court has stated: “It is uncontested that, failing a proper dose of sodium thiopental that would render the prisoner unconscious, there is a … constitutionally unacceptable risk of suffocation from the administration of pancuronium bromide and pain from the injection of potassium chloride.”

Hospira is now the sole supplier of this drug to US execution chambers. Earlier this year, under pressure from the Italian government, the company ceased production of another lethal injection drug, the anaesthetic sodium thiopental.

Thomas Moore, president of Hospira’s US region, said, "We worried that if a drug made in Italy ended up in a lethal injection, it would put our facility and our employees at risk of liability."

However, the company has said nothing about pancuronium bromide. This is particularly significant in the wake of Lundbeck’s recent action to restrict the distribution of pentobarbital, another drug used in lethal injections in the US.

Like pentobarbital, pancuronium bromide has a limited, specific medical use, and could be easily and effectively controlled by changing the distribution system.

Maya Foa of Reprieve said: “This is a welcome move from Teva, leaving Hospira increasingly isolated in the moral darkness. The use of pancuronium bromide in executions makes possible the nightmare scenario that a prisoner will die in excruciating pain, unable to signal to anyone that this is happening. Hospira can and must act, before any more people die in agony.”


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