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The Devonport Incident 7th March 1972

March 7, 2012

Dominic Parry

Today (7th March 2012) is the 40th anniversary of one of the most infamous pharmaceutical disasters.  Commonly known as the Devonport Incident, this problem concerned the release of non-sterile dextrose infusion bottles onto the market.  It is thought that this incident cost the lives of 5 people.  Whilst much has been written on this article in the past, today is a worthwhile reminder of the importance of Good Manufacturing Practice to protect patients from poor quality medicines and why the efforts we put in at work mean that fortunately problems like this are extremely rare.

The incident first hit the newspapers on the 7th March 1972, although the batch was manufactured in May 1971.  The front page of the UK’s Daily Telegraph (below) captures the incident from the public’s viewpoint.  Click here for a PDF of the article below – Devonport incident.

This later lead to a UK Government enquiry into the incident, which is summarised in the Clothier Report (July 1972).  In this report poor operational practices surrounding the final sterilisation autoclave were blamed for the problem.  The report is very difficult to get hold of and I have yet to see a copy on the web.  It is a very interesting read if you can get your own copy.  The final conclusions of the report are a sombre lesson to us all:

“The committee considers that too many people believe that sterilisation of fluids is easily achieved with simple plant operated by men of little skill under minimum supervision, a view of the task which is wrong in every respect.”

11 Comments

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  1. March 7, 2012

    Whilst not denying that the death of five people is not devastating to the people concerned, and those they left behind, I would hesitate to call this “one of the most infamous pharmaceutical disasters”. It had impacts, sure, but compared with the heparin, propylene glycol, melamine, PIP breast implants issues that we have had, the actual direct effect was minimal.
    Perhaps the sole distinguishing factor here was that the people who caused the Devonport incident believed that they were doing the right thing, because it was “the way it had always been done”. The examples I give of course concerned deliberate flouting of rules or even downright criminality.

    The major outcome of Devonport was the need to PROVE that your equipment is functioning in the way that you intended it to function, and that people operating it had to be properly trained. In other words, the entire modern validation industry was spawned by this series of errors.
    (And I too would love for someone to digitise the report and make it more widely available!)

    • March 7, 2012

      Hi Chris, thanks for your comments which are welcome and much appreciated. Whilst there have been more significant and more recent incidents (as you state) my only real reason for mentioning this today is that is an anniversary of an event often referred to during my (and others) GMP and sterile products training courses. Dominic

  2. March 8, 2012

    Hi Dominic – interesting anniversary item! Going on my dictionary’s definition of ‘infamous’ as “having a bad reputation, notorious” then I would agree that Devonport is right up there. When I did my QP training a decade ago it was brought up relentlessly – certainly more often than any other industry incident.
    Perhaps as Chris states, it has gained a prominence out of proportion to other industry disasters in terms of impact (although not a GMP issue, you could add the estimated 30,000 excess deaths associated with Vioxx to the list of ‘worse’ industry incidents), but it still jars to describe any fatal patient outcome as minimal, even if comparatively that is the case. The fact that it all happened here in the UK may also make it more keenly felt.
    I’m sure I tracked down a web version of Clothier once, but of course I can’t find it now. However, while preparing some training slides recently I did stumble on this exhange in the House of Commons after publication of Clothier, which I think is also interesting. In the space of a few minutes debate, they covered pharmacovigilance, the limitations of inspection and product sampling regimes, CAPA, good practice guides, regulatory sanctions, ineffective recall (about 170 contaminated bottles were never accounted for), and a fine grasp of the concept of QA!

    http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1972/jul/12/dextrose-solution

    • March 8, 2012

      Thanks for this Mark. An interesting addition. Thanks for the link too.

  3. March 19, 2012

    I’m still using Devonport as a case study in the GMP training courses that I provide – useful at so many levels.

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