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Pfizer's New Rat-Vomit Ad Raises Questions About Where Drugs Really Come From

Pfizer has launched a scary new ad (see below) warning people of the dangers of buying pharmaceuticals without a prescription. The ad -- which shows a man taking a pill and then vomiting up a dead rat -- asks consumers to not buy medicines without prescriptions from websites because the unregulated, unchecked ingredients may be poisonous.

The ad is a good one -- buying pills from websites is a stupid idea. But it also raises an awkward question for Pfizer, where do its medicines come from? CEO Jeff Kindler told investors in October that he expected Pfizer to be "in" 137 cities in China by the end of 2008. It wasn't clear whether those cities would contain factories, R&D sites or offices for sales rep managers.

At the same time, the FDA is planning to increase the number of inspectors in China -- to just twelve people. Those inspectors can inspect only 80 factories a year.

It's not just Pfizer. Europe's only manufacturer of paracetemol recently closed its last factory in France and moved to China and India. Multiply that trend across all drug manufacturers and you can quickly see that the chances of getting your Chinese drug factory inspected by the FDA in a given year are small.

Should you be concerned? Yes. At least 103 people were killed by adulterated heparin produced in Chinese factories. Baxter is currently being sued in the U.S. in a consumer fraud action over the incident.

More generally, it leaves the U.S. dependent on foreign countries who are not always our allies for our medicines. The NY Times points out:

"The lack of regulation around outsourcing is a blind spot that leaves room for supply disruptions, counterfeit medicines, even bioterrorism," said Senator Sherrod Brown, Democrat of Ohio
So, back to Pfizer's rat-vomit ad -- it makes a good point. But it would be nice if Pfizer also located its manufacturing facilities in places where English-speaking health inspectors could look at them.