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German firm probed over reported illegal drug shipment to US

Christian Baars | Stella Christin Peters | Benedikt Strunz
July 12, 2018

A German medical firm is suspected of illegally shipping several tons of a solution that is used to euthanize animals to the United States. The solution contains an ingredient also used to execute prisoners.

The outer facade of a VET Pharma Friesoythe GmbH building
Image: NDR

The prosecutor's office in the northern town of Oldenburg is investigating German veterinary pharmaceutical company VET Pharma Friesoythe GmbH for shipping a liquid drug used for euthanizing dogs to the United States illegally, according to an investigative report by German public broadcaster NDR and Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ).

The solution in question, called "Beuthanasia-D," contains pentobarbital, which is used in lethal injection cocktails. The trade of pentobarbital is highly regulated by European Union anti-torture directives and is subject to strict export restrictions.

Research by NDR and SZ found that prosecutors are investigating the chief executive of VET Pharma on suspicion of a commercial breach of the German Foreign Trade and Payments Act. Several other employees are also being investigated in the case.

In May, customs officials searched VET Pharma's office in the northern German town of Friesoythe, during which they seized data and company documents.

Oldenburg prosecutors confirmed to NDR and SZ that they are currently investigating "several responsible persons at a pharmaceutical company," but did not provide concrete details on the case, citing ongoing investigations.

Although based in Friesoythe, VET Pharma is owned by US pharmaceutical giant Merck Sharp & Dohme (MSD).

An image of the euthanasia solution Beuthanasia-D
Beuthanasia-D is used to euthanize dogs by injecting the liquid into their veinsImage: NDR

Alleged illegal exports

Prosecutors are investigating three shipments of "Beuthanasia-D" that VET Pharma sent to the US without a proper export license. The three shipments to the US took place between November 2017 and January 2018. An additional two shipments may have also been sent to Japan, once again lacking the required export licenses.

A search warrant issued by a district court in Oldenburg states that the customs office in the German port city of Bremen was able to prevent a further export from taking place on February 2018.

Several VET Pharma employees are also suspected of manipulating export data in order to conceal the nature of the shipments in question from the companies that were responsible for transporting them.

According to German law, exporting pentobarbital to the US is only permitted when the destination of the substance and its intended use is made clear. In the past five years, Germany's Office for Economic Affairs and Export Control hasn't approved any pentobarbital shipments to the US.

Suspicions that the drug had been exported without an export license undermines European efforts to abolish the death penalty worldwide, German MEP Barbara Lochbihler told NDR and SZ. She's a member of the Greens in the European Parliament and was previously the Secretary General of Amnesty International Germany.

"We must not look away, rather we must very clearly punish individual cases," she said.

The site of a "death chamber" and witness room at a prison in Lucasville, Ohio
Pentobarbital is used in lethal injection cocktails and its export is therefore highly regulated by EU anti-torture directivesImage: picture-alliance/AP/K. Sato

No evidence of misuse

NDR and SZ research found that the "Beuthanasia-D" solution was sent to VET Pharma's affiliate in the US, Intervet Schering-Plough Animal Health. Both firms are owned by MSD.

When approached by NDR and SZ for comment, a spokesman for MSD Animal Health said the company was "working closely with the authorities in this matter."

As the drug is only authorized in the US as a veterinary drug and is not approved for use on humans, the MSD spokesman said he had no reason to believe "Beuthanasia-D" had been used for any other purpose. He added that all MSD employees were required to abide by the law.

Lethal injection drugs in short supply in US

The trade of pentobarbital has been highly regulated and restricted within the European Union since 2011 due to its use in executions.

Many pharmaceutical manufactures in the EU have chosen to ignore supply enquiries from US companies for pentobarbital and similar substances to prevent their drugs being used on prisoners on death row.

In part due to these restrictions, drugs for lethal injection cocktails in the US are in short supply. As a result, many states have either postponed planned executions or controversially experimented with untested chemicals.

Capital punishment has been illegal in Germany since 1949. The EU as a whole also opposes it.

Rebecca Staudenmaier contributed to this report.

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