Opioids more powerful than fentanyl found in DC as overdoses rise

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Forensic analysts have alerted the District of Columbia's Department of Forensic Sciences (DFS) that there is a new synthetic opioid circulating in the illicit drug supply in the city as it continues to grapple with a flood of fatal overdoses.

Scientists at the DFS found the synthetic drugs during a routine study of used syringes in September and October, The Washington Post reported. The opioids - called protonitazene and isotonitazene - were found to be several times more potent than fentanyl.

While the drugs are not new compounds, the scientist who discovered the first known sample of protonitazene in D.C., Alexandra Evans, told WTOP that it's the first time the opioid has appeared in the District's drug supply.

The discovery of the new drugs, known as nitazenes, has raised alarms because they could be less vulnerable to some of the primary resources used to prevent overdoses, such as fentanyl testing strips and the overdose antidote Narcan, which is also known as Naloxone.

"The DFS Public Health Lab discovered two nitazenes - synthetic opioids - in used syringes submitted to the lab as part of the District's Needle Exchange Program. Studies show nitazenes are more potent than fentanyl, which means additional doses of Naloxone may be needed to treat overdoses," a spokesperson for DC Department of Forensic Sciences said in a statement to The Hill.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Scientists say that nitazene is even more powerful.

"What we know about it is that it's more potent than fentanyl. So we are a bit concerned about this," Evans said.

"We could be on the precipice of something devastating," Evans said to WUSA9. "We've already seen mass fatalities because of fentanyl overdoses. Since this is more potent than fentanyl, we do expect an uptick in overdoses."

In spite of the concerning new discovery, fentanyl remains the primary threat to opioid users in D.C. and is a major factor in the majority of U.S. drug overdoses.

Public health officials have warned that fentanyl is often detected in supplies of other drugs such as cocaine, sometimes leading to fatal overdoses among drug users who aren't aware what they are consuming.

U.S. drug overdose deaths hit a record high for a 12-month period earlier this year, with more than 100,306 such deaths being recorded in the year ending in April, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that were released in November.

D.C. saw an estimated 498 fatal drug overdoses over 12 months during the coronavirus pandemic. It is unclear how many were caused by fentanyl.

- Updated at 1:20 p.m.