Pharmacy Error Probable Cause of Deaths of 21 Polo Ponies

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International Polo Club in Wellington, Florida. File Photo © 2008 Ken Braddick
International Polo Club in Wellington, Florida. File Photo © 2008 Ken Braddick

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla., Apr. 23—A Florida pharmacy said Thursday the business incorrectly prepared a supplement given to 21 polo horses that died last weekend while preparing to play in a U.S. Open championship match.

Jennifer Beckett, chief operating officer of Franck’s Pharmacy in Ocala, Fla., said in a statement that the pharmacy conducted an internal investigation that found “the strength of an ingredient in the medication was incorrect.” The statement did not identify the ingredient.

Beckett said the pharmacy is cooperating with an investigation by Florida authorities and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The pharmacy may have illegally created a compound imitating the supplement Biodyl, which is not approved for use in the United States.

The horses from the Venezuelan-owned Lechuza Caracas polo team began collapsing shortly before Sunday’s U.S. Open match was scheduled to begin at the International Polo Club Palm Beach in Wellington.

One of the horses stricken on Sunday
One of the horses stricken on Sunday

“On an order from a veterinarian, Franck’s Pharmacy prepared medication that was used to treat the 21 horses on the Lechuza Polo team,” Beckett said. “As soon as we learned of the tragic incident, we conducted an internal investigation.”

Lechuza also issued a statement acknowledging that a Florida veterinarian wrote the prescription for the pharmacy to create a compound similar to Biodyl, a French-made supplement that includes vitamins and minerals and is not approved for use in the United States.

“Only horses treated with the compound became sick and died within three hours of treatment,” Lechuza said in the statement. “Other horses that were not treated remain healthy and normal.”

William Gericke, a Philadelphia attorney representing an insurance company, wrote a letter to Lechuza Caracas team veterinarian Dr. James Belden of Wellington, saying its investigation revealed that Biodyl was administered to the 12 ponies owned by team patron Victor Vargas prior to their deaths before the match at IPC on Sunday.

”Since you ordered the Biodyl from Franck’s Pharmacy that was administered to the horses, I believe there may be a possibility that my client may look to you as a party who has some responsibility for the loss,” Gericke wrote.

Biodyl, a vitamin supplement that is banned in the United States, emerged as a possible culprit in the deaths when Lechuza Caracas’ team captain told a Venezuelan newspaper it was administered to the horses.

Belden was not immediately available for comment He has said he is one of the team’s vets and worked under Argentine team veterinarian Felix Crespo. Crespo is not named in the letter.

State labs, which conducted inconclusive necropsies of the 21 horses, said they are still awaiting results of toxicology tests to determine what caused the deaths. Sarah Carey, a spokeswoman for the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine, said she expects results “very soon.”

Gericke represents an insurance company for Quorum Management, one of several companies owned by Vargas, an oil magnate turned banker who owns two mansions in Palm Beach.

Lechuza also said it was cooperating with authorities that include the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services and the Palm Beach County Sheriff’s Office.

Biodyl contains a combination of vitamin B12, a form of selenium called sodium selenite and other minerals. It is made in France by the Georgia-based animal pharmaceutical firm Merial Ltd. and is widely used to treat horses for exhaustion, but it is not approved for use in the United. States.

Compound pharmacies can add flavor, make substances into a powder or liquid or remove a certain compound that may have an adverse reaction in different animal species. An F.D.A. spokeswoman said compounding pharmacies cannot legally recreate existing drugs or supplements under patent. In most cases, they are also not allowed to recreate a medication that is not approved for use in the United States.

The F.D.A. said it generally defers to “state authorities regarding the day-to-day regulation of compounding by veterinarians and pharmacists.”

However, the agency says it would “seriously consider enforcement action” if a pharmacy breaks federal law in compounding medications. It has not yet been determined whether Franck’s broke the law.

Paul Franck, chief executive officer and owner of Franck’s Pharmacy, on its Internet site provided a description of his laboratory saying that the phramacy has been in business for 25 years serving veterinarians and other groups.

“At Franck’s Pharmacy, we create a whole new approach to pharmacy by providing the traditional retail pharmacy services, and, also providing the physician, veterinarian and other health practitioners with limitless possibilities of custom medications,” it said. “Located in Ocala, Florida, Franck’s Compounding Lab specializes in compounded medications that are no longer commercially available, allowing the specialist to custom prescribe for an individual patient, the exact drug and dosage form to be used. This allows for improved patient compliance and better outcomes for the patient.”