LONDON Danish drugmaker Lundbeck will continue to sell a drug used in U.S. executions since pulling it off the market would be bad for some patients with severe epilepsy, its CEO said on Wednesday.
The company has found itself at the center of a storm because Nembutal, also known generically as pentobarbital, is increasingly used in lethal injections in the United States, following the withdrawal of another medicine.
Chief Executive Ulf Wiinberg said Lundbeck was strongly opposed to Nembutal's use in executions and removing it from sale in the United States would have been the simplest solution for the mid-sized pharmaceuticals company.
"From a commercial point of view, this is a completely unimportant product for us. It is less than 1 percent of our turnover," he told Reuters during a visit to London.
"To withdraw the product would have been the easiest and financially best thing to do -- but when we asked the medical community they said that would compromise treatment options for patients."
The drug is used to treat serious epileptic seizures and Wiinberg said 90 percent of specialists wanted it to remain on the market to help them deal with these emergencies.
Nembutal is a powerful barbiturate that has sometimes been used in assisted suicides. It started to become a drug of choice for U.S. executions after Hospira last year halted production of sodium thiopental.
A vocal group of epilepsy experts think Lundbeck should be doing more to prevent U.S. prisons switching to Nembutal as an alternative.
Doctors from Britain, Denmark, the United States, Saudi Arabia and India said in a letter in the June 18 edition of the Lancet medical journal they were "appalled" by Lundbeck's inaction.
Wiinberg said he was urgently investigating ways to change the distribution of the medicine to prevent its misuse in U.S. prisons.
"Having decided to keep the drug on the market, we are talking to NGOs (non-governmental organizations) who are engaged in this area. They've given us lots of suggestions, some of which we cannot do and some of which we are willing to try," he said.
"We are trying to do the right thing in this situation."
(Reporting by Ben Hirschler; Editing by Mike Nesbit)