University of Rhode Island pharmacy professor Michelle Caetano Thomas was indicted in December in connection with tainted drugs produced by her employer, the New England Compounding Center, that killed 64 people in the midwest.
Up to 750 people were sickened across 20 states in the fall of 2012 during a fungal meningitis outbreak that was traced back to the Framingham, Massachusetts lab.
Thomas, of Cumberland, Rhode Island, received her doctorate of pharmacy from URI and has been a clinical assistant professor of pharmacy here since 2012. She was one of 14 charged in the wake of the scandal.
The case, according to the US attorney for the District of Massachusetts, Carmen Ortiz, is potentially the largest case ever brought for tainted medicine. Compounding pharmacies like NECC produce specialized drugs for individual patients and are consequently less heavily regulated when compared to large-scale drug manufacturers. The center was allegedly illegally producing and distributing an injectable steroid for back pain without prescriptions. Thomas, who worked at the center from March to August 2012, is accused of defrauding the government and hiding the lack of prescriptions by using fake names like L.L. Bean and Harry Potter.
Thomas is still employed at URI and has been given an “alternative work assignment outside the classroom,” according to a statement from URI spokesperson David Lavallee. “She is currently providing significant assistance in the college of CELS studies for reaccreditation and other assessment activities.” It came with her full cooperation, he added.
Outside of this specific situation, Lavallee clarified that if URI students of faculty are accused of a crime, the level of response is proportionate to the crime. “Violent crimes are certainly viewed a little differently than what would be called a ‘white-collar’ crime,” he said, adding that a fraud indictment would be looked upon differently than if Thomas were one of the pharmacists who allegedly contributed directly to the deaths.
“The University will continue to monitor this matter and assess the need for additional action if that becomes necessary,” Lavallee said.
Thomas’s lawyer could not be reached for comment.
According to prosecutors, the center was producing the steroid in unsanitary conditions, falsifying cleaning logs and lying about testing the drugs for sterility and safety. Two men, owner Barry J. Cadden and supervisory pharmacist Glenn Chin have been charged with 25 counts of second degree murder for distributing the drugs with knowledge of the risks they posed. Cadden also holds his pharmacy degree from URI.
Experts described the indictments as sweeping and dramatic and following the scandal in 2012, Congress passed new legislation in an effort to control compounding pharmacies like NECC.