Exclusive-India probe into bribery claim in toxic syrup tests nears completion

By Krishna N. Das

NEW DELHI (Reuters) – India is close to finishing an investigation into a “comprehensive and exhaustive” complaint that a state drug regulator, in return for a bribe, helped switch samples of cough syrups linked to the deaths of children in Gambia before the samples were tested in India, the investigator told Reuters.

While the World Health Organization (WHO) linked the syrups made by India’s Maiden Pharmaceuticals to the deaths of 70 children in the African country last year, India’s government says tests at an Indian government laboratory showed the syrups were not toxic. Maiden has said it had not “done anything wrong”.

Reuters reported in June that in an April 29 letter to the Anti-Corruption Bureau in Haryana state, where Maiden has its factory, a lawyer named Yashpal accused the state’s drug controller, Manmohan Taneja, of taking a bribe of 50 million rupees ($600,687) from Maiden to help switch the samples before they went for tests at the government laboratory.

Reuters was unable to independently establish that any bribes were paid.

Taneja did not respond to a phone call and a WhatsApp message seeking comment. He told Reuters in October that it was a “fake complaint from a fake person” and that “anyone can send any fake complaint against anyone”.

Maiden did not respond to requests for comment.

But Gagandeep Singh, joint director at Haryana’s Food and Drugs Administration (FDA), told Reuters on Thursday that he was thoroughly going through Yashpal’s complaint, had taken the views of various sides, and was close to finishing his probe.

“The whole complaint was quite comprehensive and exhaustive,” he said. “I’ve been given the direction by the government to have an exhaustive analysis of the whole complaint and give a consolidated report. It’s in the final stages … pretty soon it will be completed.”

This is the first time a government officer has commented on the contents of the complaint and the existence of a detailed investigation into the allegations.

Singh declined to share his findings ahead of submitting the report to his boss, Haryana’s FDA Commissioner Ashok Kumar Meena. He said once the report is submitted, any future steps would be taken by his superiors. Meena and India’s health ministry did not respond to e-mails seeking comment.

Singh said that Yashpal, who goes by one name, had not appeared in front of him in person but his e-mailed statements standing by his complaint had been taken into account in the investigation.

“I have given him the opportunity of being heard again and again, but I have received e-mails,” Singh said. “The very fact is that he did take ownership of the complaint – but he has been able to respond to me only through e-mail.”

Yashpal’s phone was switched off when Reuters tried to call him on Thursday and Friday.

In his complaint, Yashpal did not say where he got the information, or provide evidence for his claim about the syrups made by Maiden. He told Reuters in June he had learned about the alleged bribe in the Maiden case from at least two individuals in India’s pharmaceutical industry, including one within Maiden, but declined to identify any of them for fear of retribution.

Indian-made cough syrups have been linked to the deaths of at least 141 children in Gambia, Uzbekistan and Cameroon since last year, denting the image of the world’s largest drug manufacturing country after the United States and China.

This year, the Indian government has stepped up inspections of factories in its $50 billion pharmaceutical industry and made tests of cough syrups mandatory at government or government-identified private laboratories before export.

($1 = 83.2380 Indian rupees)

(Reporting by Krishna N. Das in New Delhi; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)