When you buy eyedrops at a U.S. store, you might assume you’re getting a product made in a clean, well-maintained factory that’s passed muster with health regulators.
But repeated recalls involving over-the-counter drops are drawing new attention to just how little U.S. officials know about the conditions at some manufacturing plants on the other side of the world – and the limited tools they have to intervene when there’s a problem.
The Food and Drug Administration is asking Congress for new powers, including the ability to mandate drug recalls and require eyedrop makers to undergo inspections before shipping products to the U.S. But experts say those capabilities will do little without more staff and resources for foreign inspections, which were a challenge even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced regulators to skip thousands of visits.
“The FDA is not getting its job done in terms of drug quality assurance inspections abroad,” said David Ridley of Duke University and co-author of a recent paper tracking the downturn in inspections. “Very few foreign drugmakers have been inspected in the past four years.”
An October recall of two dozen eyedrop brands came after FDA staff found cracked floors, barefoot workers and other unsanitary conditions at a Mumbai plant that supplied products to CVS, Walmart and other major retailers. It was the first time FDA staff had visited the site.
That inspection was prompted by an earlier recall of tainted eyedrops from a different Indian plant that’s been linked to four deaths and more than a dozen cases of vision loss. That plant had also never been previously inspected.
“These are very rare instances, but what we’ve seen is that these products can cause real harm,” said Dr. Timothy Janetos, an ophthalmologist at Northwestern University. “Something needs to change.”
Experts point to three possible changes:
Prescription medicines are highly regulated. Before a drugmaker can sell one in the U.S., it must undergo FDA review to establish its safety and effectiveness. As part of the process, the FDA typically inspects the factory where the drug will be made.
But eyedrops and other over-the-counter products don’t undergo preliminary review or inspections. Instead, they are governed by a different system called a monograph, essentially a generic recipe for all medicines in a particular class. So long as drugmakers attest that they are using the standard recipe, they can launch a product within days of filing with the FDA.
“It’s nothing more than electronic paperwork,” said Dr. Sandra Brown of the Dry Eye Foundation, a nonprofit advocating for increased regulation. “There’s no requirement for the facility to be inspected prior to shipping for sale.”
The FDA says it has flexibility to