By Walter F. Roche Jr.
Federal prosecutors disclosed Tuesday that the death toll from a 2012 fungal meningitis outbreak exceeded the official figure of 64 set by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"We know the number is much higher," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Amanda Strachan, who also said the victims were not limited to patients injected with a spinal steroid, methylprednisolone acetate.
"Our investigation found a much higher number than that," Strachan said referring to the CDC case count.
Strachan and U.S. Attorney George P. Varghese, both working from the U.S. Attorney's office in Boston, Mass., made the disclosure in a conference call with victims of the outbreak or their survivors.
Though victims were allowed to listen in, they were not allowed to ask questions during the 25 minute session.
The official CDC count set the deaths at 64, with a total of 751 patients suffering illness or death.
In the 25 minute call, the two prosecutors stressed that they were aware that there were many more victims than the 25 specifically named in the 73-page 131 count indictment.
The indictment charges two persons, Barry Cadden and Glenn Chin with 25 counts of second degree murder. Cadden was part owner of the New England Compounding Center, the company blamed for the outbreak. Chin was the supervisory pharmacist.
Twelve other owners or employees of NECC were also charged in the indictment on charges ranging from racketeering, mail fraud, conspiracy to defrauding the U.S. government.
Strachan said Cadden and Chin were charged with the most serious crimes because they were the two most directly responsible for shipping fungus tainted drugs to doctors and healthcare facilities around the country.
She explained that to prove second degree murder prosecutors don't have to prove that the two intended to kill anyone, but that they acted "with wanton and willful disregard for human life."
Strachan said that by picking 25 specific cases, the prosecutors realized there were many more victims."
"You are all victims," she said.
She noted that records showed that in 37 out of 38 weeks in 2012, tests showed that there were not sterile conditions at NECC, but no action was taken despite state and federal requirements to do so.
The prosecutors noted that other non-sterile drugs were shipped out even though tests had shown they were contaminated
Strachan said that one of those charged, Scott Connelly, was overseeing preparation of a drug called cardioplegia, which is used to stop the heart beat during surgery.
Connolly was not licensed as a pharmacy technician and in fact had given up his license in 2009, she said.
Two pending suits in federal court charge that two children died in a Las Vegas hospital after being injected with cardioplegia shipped from NECC.
"It was not just about the methylprednisolone acetate," Strachan said.
Varghese warned the victims that it could be up to two years before all the charges are resolved, but said they would be advised of major developments. He also said that victims might be eligible for aid through victim assistance programs.
Varghese also outlined how two of those charged, Carla and Douglas Conigliaro, withdrew some $33.3 million from various accounts even though a freeze had been placed on them by a U.S. Bankruptcy judge.
A plan now under consideration in bankruptcy court would provide some $146 million for victims and creditors of NECC. Prosecutors stressed in the call Tuesday that the funds set aside in that settlement would not be affected by the criminal case and related forfeiture efforts.
"This does not affect the settlement," Varghese said.
Dozens of civil suits arising from the outbreak have been merged in federal court in Boston.