This undated photo made available by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows a branch of the fungus Aspergillus fumigatus. The fungus can also cause skin infections if it enters a break in the skin. The meningitis outbreak is linked to the fungus being accidentally injected into people as a contaminant in steroid treatments. It's not clear how the fungus got into the medicine.Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.
BOSTON — A pharmacist who oversaw the sterile clean rooms at a Massachusetts compounding pharmacy responsible for a deadly meningitis outbreak was arrested Thursday as he was about to board a flight for Hong Kong, federal officials said.
Glenn Adam Chin, a former supervisory pharmacist at the New England Compounding Center, didn't properly sterilize or test equipment and concealed the unsafe practices, federal investigators said.
The pharmacy, which custom-mixed medications in bulk, has been blamed for a 2012 outbreak of fungal meningitis that killed 64 people. About 750 people in 20 states developed meningitis — an inflammation of the lining of the brain and spinal cord — or other infections. Michigan, Tennessee and Indiana were hit the hardest.
Chin, 46, of Canton, was arrested at Logan International Airport. He was charged with one count of mail fraud, but federal prosecutors said it is part of a larger criminal investigation of Chin and others. He is the first person to be charged in the inquiry.
During a brief federal court hearing Thursday afternoon, Assistant U.S. Attorney George Varghese said the investigation was ongoing. "We are looking at Mr. Chin for a host of other criminal conduct," he said.
Chin's attorney, Paul Shaw, called the charge "absolute nonsense." He said Chin does not dispute that the steroids were contaminated, but said, "No one has a good understanding of the source of the contamination."
"Mr. Chin feels horrible about the consequences of this," Shaw said.
Chief Magistrate Judge Jennifer Boal released Chin pending trial, but ordered him confined to his home.
Prosecutors said Chin was involved in compounding the contaminated methylprednisolone acetate, or MPA, that caused the outbreak.
They allege that Chin participated in a scheme to fraudulently cause one lot of MPA to be labeled as injectable, meaning that it was sterile and fit for human use. The lot was shipped to Michigan Pain Specialists in Brighton, Michigan.
After receiving the drug, Michigan Pain Specialists doctors injected it into patients, believing it to be safe. As a result, 217 patients contracted fungal meningitis, and 15 of them died, according to the affidavit.
In an affidavit, a special agent with the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Chin used numerous unsafe practices while producing the medication, including improper sterilization and improper testing. Agent Benedict Celso said that Chin also "instructed pharmacy technicians to mislabel medication to indicate it was properly sterilized and tested."
Celso also said Chin instructed pharmacy technicians to "fraudulently complete cleaning logs" at the end of the month "purporting to show the rooms were properly cleaned and maintained when in fact they had not been."
A woman whose husband contracted meningitis after getting a tainted injection at the Michigan clinic welcomed the criminal charge.
"They should take every one of them and put the same contaminated injection in their back," said Iona "Nell" Rye, of Maybee, Michigan.
She said her 74-year-old husband, Alfred, had been in excellent health before he received the injection in August 2012. He has recovered but still has some residual effects, she said.
"He doesn't have the same strength. He's off balance," she said.
The New England Compounding Center, based in Framingham, just west of Boston, gave up its license and filed for bankruptcy protection after it was flooded with hundreds of lawsuits. Attorneys for its creditors late last year announced a preliminary settlement with a victim compensation fund worth more than $100 million.
Shaw, Chin's attorney, said his client was at the airport with his family because he planned to attend a wedding in his wife's native Hong Kong, not to flee the country.
"This was a publicity stunt," Shaw said of the arrest.
He said Chin's wife, two young children and his mother boarded the plane to Hong Kong after he was arrested.