FDA faults quality control at Lilly plant making Trump-touted COVID drug

Eli Lilly logo is shown on one of the company's offices in San Diego, California, U.S., September 17, 2020. (REUTERS/Mike Blake)

U.S. drug inspectors uncovered serious quality control problems at an Eli Lilly and Co pharmaceutical plant that is ramping up to manufacture one of two promising COVID-19 drugs touted by President Trump as “a cure” for the disease, according to government documents and three sources familiar with the matter.

The Lilly antibody therapy, which is experimental and not yet approved by regulators as safe and effective, is similar to a drug from Regeneron Pharmaceuticals that was given to the president during his bout with COVID-19.

Trump, who credits the Regeneron drug with speeding his recovery, has called for both therapies to become available immediately on an emergency basis, raising expectations among some scientists and policy experts that the administration will imminently release an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the drug. The president’s push is key to his efforts to convince voters he has an answer to the pandemic that has killed more than 215,000 Americans.

But the findings by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration inspectors at the Lilly manufacturing facility, which have not been disclosed previously, could complicate the drugmaker’s bid for a so-called emergency use authorization (EUA) from the federal agency, two of the sources and two outside legal experts told Reuters. That’s because U.S. law generally requires compliance with manufacturing standards for authorization of a drug.

The three sources who spoke to Reuters requested that their names be withheld so they could speak freely without fear of retaliation.

Inspectors who visited the Lilly plant in Branchburg, New Jersey, last November found that data on the plant’s various manufacturing processes had been deleted and not appropriately audited, government inspection documents show.

“The deleted incidents and related audit trail were not reviewed by the quality unit,” the FDA inspectors wrote. Because the government inspection documents reviewed by Reuters were heavily redacted by the FDA it was not possible to see the inspectors’ more specific findings.

Following its November inspection, the FDA classified the problems as the most serious level of violation, resulting in an “Official Action Indicated” (OAI) notice.

That “means that the violations are serious enough and have a significant enough impact on the public health that something needs to be fixed,” said Patricia Zettler, a former associate chief counsel at the FDA who is now a law professor at Ohio State University.

Separately, Lilly said on Tuesday it had paused its clinical trial for the COVID drug in hospitalized patients “out of an abundance of caution” over a potential safety concern. The company did not release information on what the problem was and declined to say how the news might affect their EUA request.

In response to Reuters’ questions on Monday about the manufacturing issues, Lilly confirmed the OAI notice but declined to provide details on what prompted the FDA action. The drugmaker said it has launched a “comprehensive remediation plan,” has increased staffing at the site and was working “aggressively” to address all concerns raised during the inspection.

The data deletions cited by the FDA, Lilly said, were not related to production of the drug.

“These findings do not impact product quality or patient safety, as outlined in a detailed assessment submitted to FDA,” the company’s statement said. “Lilly continues to provide updates to the FDA on progress towards completion of our detailed plan.”

 

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