Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
December 1, 2022

Hopkins and UCSF archive shines light on the opioid crisis

By NATANIA KURIEN | November 4, 2022

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K-STATE RESEARCH AND EXTENSION / CC-BY-2.0

The Opioid Industry Documents Archive aims to document and preserve evidence of the corporate behavior leading to the opioid epidemic.

The Opioid Industry Documents Archive (OIDA) preserves and publicizes over 1.5 million documents related to the stakeholders of the opioid epidemic. The archive — a joint effort by Hopkins and the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF) — serves as a consolidation of knowledge containing millions of pages of documents released during litigation between 2011-2022 against manufacturers, wholesalers and pharmacies involved in opioid distribution.

The opioid epidemic has had far-reaching consequences on a large number of people. The National Institute on Drug Abuse estimates that over 68,630 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2020 alone. 

Professor of Epidemiology and Medicine at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and Founding Director of the Center for Drug Safety and Effectiveness—which assisted in OIDA’s development— Dr. Caleb Alexander discussed OIDA and the opioid epidemic in an interview with The News-Letter.

“One doesn't have to look far to find people that have been personally impacted by the opioid epidemic,” he said. “This is an archive that we hope they and many others will use in order to understand more about the epidemic and to prevent further harm.”

The documents in the OIDA are publicly disclosed records from past and ongoing litigation. These include emails between sales representatives and physicians, meeting agendas, budgets and communication with regulatory agencies involving major companies like Purdue Pharma, Johnson & Johnson and McKinsey. It is also a living archive, with documents that will be continuously added as future litigation occurs. 

As a pharmacoepidemiologist, Alexander conducts research on the safety of pharmaceutical drugs in large groups. To him, the archive offers information on how the opioid epidemic began and the various players involved in the crisis, such as false scientific information, marketing on the safety of opioids, the oversupply of opioids into the market and how lobbying has delayed state regulations.

“There are many steps between when a drug is manufactured and when it is actually prescribed, dispensed and taken by a patient,“ he said. “If you look at something like the laws governing the distribution and handling of controlled substances, as laid out in the Controlled Substances Act, you know clearly there were shortcomings in the ways that pharmacies are interpreted and adhered to these regulations.”

He also asserted that the archive not only helps the public understand the crisis but can also address gaps in old laws and policies.

“The key thing to note is that the epidemic didn't just happen because people broke the law. There's also evidence of corporate behavior, which is simply the usual way that business is done,” he said. “The generation of fundamental new knowledge can help to ensure that this never happens again.”

OIDA builds upon the previous work done by UCSF’s Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, which publicized more than 14 million documents regarding the tobacco industry. Similarly, OIDA’s intended audience is not policymakers involved in state and federal investigations, settlement agreements and lawsuits but everyone in the public sphere.

In order to ease public access and increase understanding, the archive contains two- to three-page guides on certain collections that describe the themes of the documents and explain the evidence. 

Alexander highlighted that the OIDA aims to make the papers as accessible as possible to help readers accurately analyze them. 

“The public deserves to know the truth regarding how the epidemic arose and the role that different parties played in driving it,” he said. “The promise of the archives depends crucially upon the interest and the gumption of individuals to use these materials.” 

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