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Indian company in US execution row
SEEMA MUSTAFA  New Delhi | 3rd Apr 2011

little known Indian pharmaceutical company, Kayem Pharmaceuticals Pvt Ltd, finds itself at the centre of a huge controversy in the United States over the execution of prisoners using a three-drug cocktail, of which one, sodium thiopental has been supplied by it. Prisoners on death row have filed a federal suit against the US Food and Drug Administration to block overseas shipments of this key drug, with US based NGOs increasing the pressure on the suppliers through notices, personal visits and press conferences.

Kayem Pharmaceuticals managing director Navneet Verma, who has been at the receiving end, has filed a criminal intimidation case against the US NGOs in Mumbai. Well aware of the contours of the controversy, Verma was simple in his explanation: "I am a trader here to buy and sell. As a human being, of course, I am concerned about the usage this drug is being put to, and I have increased my price ten times over to Rs 20 a vial to dissuade them (US) from buying this, but if they give the price I will sell."

The US company Hospira Inc stopped manufacturing sodium thiopental, leading the authorities of Tennessee, Georgia, Arizona, Arkansas, Nebraska and California to explore the world market for the drug required for executions. Kayem Pharma, which has been producing sodium thiopental, a first line anaesthesia for pregnancies and deliveries, for Angola and the African market, received a sudden unexpected query from the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services. Verma's existing stock was marked in Portuguese for the Angola market so he contacted another local dealer for the vials. Nebraska has 12 prisoners on death row, and wanted far less than the "minimum" amount of 500 grams it was compelled to buy at a price of over $2,000.

Kayem finds itself at the centre of a huge controversy in the United States over the execution of prisoners using a three-drug cocktail.

erma admitted that the amount was far higher than requisitioned, "but I had told them it had to be worth our while." This has added to the furore in the US, with NGOs pointing out that Nebraska had bought enough to kill 166 prisoners, even though it had just 12 presently in death row. Other states, in what appears to be a desperate hurry to execute inmates, contacted other suppliers, with Georgia executing prisoners in September and January with the drug bought from a little know pharmaceutical company, Dream Pharma, based in London. Given the fresh controversy, Nebraska has still to put the drug to use.

Verma fuelled the concerns being expressed by the activists in both the US and UK on this issue, maintaining that the drug is really used in India for treating the poor, "slum dwellers" as he put it. The major difference is that the Indian pharma authorities recognise it as an essential drug, while the US treats it as a barbiturate. The Kayem MD said that he was still receiving enquiries from the US states but "now that I have jacked up the price I don't think they will go ahead". Asked why he had not refused to deliver further supplies, Verma's response was straightforward: "I cannot, not when our government has recognised the US government as the boss. I have to listen as I am just a small guy, and so I have increased the price ten times to dissuade them."

The NGOs protesting against the import of drugs by the US authorities are worried that the poor quality could complicate the executions. They are of the view that the anaesthetic in the three-drug cocktail might not make the prisoner unconscious leading to a painful death. They cite instances of this, and are now building up a campaign to dissuade the states in the US from importing the drugs. Recently, a prisoner was executed in what was a first by a drug used to kill dogs. He was an African American.

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