US senator seeks criminal probe in meningitis outbreak

WASHINGTON, Oct 11 (Reuters) - A Democratic member of a U.S. Senate health oversight committee on Thursday called for a criminal investigation of the deadly meningitis outbreak linked to tainted drugs that has killed 14 people in 11 states.

Senator Richard Blumenthal, who sits on the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said he would ask the Justice Department to investigate potential violations, including possible mail and wire fraud.

"I've reached no conclusions but there are at least sufficient facts to warrant an investigation," Blumenthal, a former Connecticut state attorney general and federal prosecutor, told Reuters in a telephone interview.

The outbreak, which has infected 170 people with rare fungal meningitis, stems from a Massachusetts-based pharmacy, New England Compounding Center, that produced tainted injectable steroid treatments for back pain. The injections may have been given to as many as 13,000 people.

Blumenthal said he submitted his request for a federal criminal probe in a letter to U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder.

"The company, its officers, employees and maybe others may have violated state and federal criminal laws in their potential misrepresentations to government agencies regarding their products," he said.

"The fact that death and serious injuries resulted from the potential violations of law certainly is relevant, and the misstatements or fraud could constitute a violation of federal mail and wire fraud prohibitions."

The outbreak has also stirred calls for stronger regulation of the little-known segment of the pharmacy industry, known as drug compounding, which is regulated primarily by states rather than the Food and Drug Administration.

The crisis has also raised questions about whether the FDA and Massachusetts regulators could have acted earlier under current law to prevent the problem.

Experts and some lawmakers say New England Compounding Center was engaged in full-scale drug manufacturing that should have been subject to FDA safety and efficacy standards.

(Reporting by David Morgan; Editing by Dan Grebler)

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