The investigative journalist’s latest book, “Bottle of Lies,” was the product of a decade of reporting and more than 240 interviews.
Even at a seminar about the sinister side of the generic drug industry, no one was quite prepared to see the picture of a snake coiled inside a sterile room at an overseas drug manufacturing plant. Or the bug crawling out of a broken blood pressure capsule in New Jersey. Or the animal feces atop containers filled with drug ingredients in India.
The photographs were among the evidence that journalist Katherine Eban collected during the investigation that led to her eye-opening book “Bottle of Lies: The Inside Story of the Generic Drug Boom.” Speaking to Knight Science Journalism fellows last week, she revealed how a decade of reporting helped her glimpse behind doors that rogue drug makers had long fought to keep locked.
Eban said the seed for Bottle of Lies was planted in 2008, when she received a tip from the host of a radio program who’d been flooded with complaints from listeners who’d been having problems with generic drugs. Eban pulled at the thread and, slowly, a web of corporate deceit began to unravel.
Over her decade-long reporting journey, the veteran journalist traveled to four continents and interviewed more than 240 people. She verified consumer complaints on more than 200 substandard products sold in 40 countries. And she helped expose a “bribe me” system that rewarded regulators for overlooking illegal activity during inspections at overseas generic drug companies, which supply 90% of U.S. drugs. “This is a global fraud,” she said.
During her talk, Eban stressed the importance of going the distance to build trust with sources. “I could not have done this book and gotten to the depth I got without some serious sources,” she said, noting that her Freedom of Information Act requests to the Food and Drug Adminnistration (FDA) largely went unanswered. She interviewed patients, doctors, regulators, and whistleblowers, including a key informant who, three months after refusing to do an interview, handed Eban his entire hard drive. In another case, she flew from New York to Beijing just to introduce herself to a potential source.
In other words, to win over her most skeptical sources, she had to do the legwork. Their biggest question, she said, is “Are you going to be the journalist they trust?” In the end, her sources trusted her with 20,000 internal FDA documents and thousands of pages of internal corporate records from generic drug companies.
One of those records was a Power Point presentation she received early on in her reporting, which revealed that the generic drug company Ranbaxy had been falsifying testing data, and that all of the top executives knew it. It was a smoking gun, Eban said. “They had not run any actual tests.”
“What was your reaction when you got this?” Knight Science Journalism Fellow John Fauber asked. “Because my first reaction is this is a huge story, an immense story. I can’t sit on this forever, because someone else is going to get it.”
But Eban had to sit on it — she had agreed to keep the damning document secret for three years to protect her source. “It was agony,” she said, but ultimately she decided that upholding the agreement was more important than the risk of being scooped.
Eban recalled facing serious backlash to her reporting, from having her computer hacked, to receiving what she believes was a warning photo from the Chinese government on her cellphone, to being threatened with libel lawsuits from pharmaceutical companies.
But one surprising critique, she said, came from a reviewer who chided the book for painting too grim a picture of the generic drug industry and offering too little in the way of policy solutions. Eban countered, matter-of-factly, “The story is not what you’re hoping for… It’s what you find out.”