Pfizer’s Trovan Outrage in Nigeria on Film: Dying for Drugs
Several weeks ago the Nigerian government announced a $7 billion action against Pfizer for
performing tests on children during a 1996 epidemic without informed consent. This story was one of four cases highlighted in an excellent documentary made by Michael Simkin and Brian Woods for Channel 4 in 2003, called “Dying For Drugs.”
Kano, a town in northern Nigeria, was already in the grip of cholera and measles epidemics when another disease struck: meningitis. Infection spread rapidly and hundreds died. MSF set up an emergency operation there to treat the sick with proven antibiotics. A couple of weeks later Pfizer independently dispatched a team to Nigeria with their new drug Trovan, which had never been tested on children. Pfizer has never produced any consent forms signed by either the children or the parents, claiming that the risks were explained by a local nurse and consent was ‘verbal‘. Over two hundred children were experimented on as part of this trial.
Pharmaceutical tests are required to be cleared in advance by an Ethics Committee. In this case it was notionally based in Aminu Kano Teaching Hospital, but in fact does not appear to have existed. Pfizer produced a letter dated March 26, 1996, but later their doctor admitted that he had produced the letter a year later and backdated it to reflect what he claims was a ‘verbal agreement’.
Pfizer later fired one of its child health specialists, Juan Walterspiel, after he wrote an open letter to senior management outlining criticism and concern at the way in which the trials had been conducted. He is not the only Pfizer employee to have been fired for whistle-blowing.
Apart from the Nigerian government’s action, there is a separate case underway in the High Cort in Kano, taken by the state and the families of the children involved. At least five children die, and many others have suffered from arthritis; Trovan was known to have the side effect of causing joint damage. Lawyers representing the families initially sought to have the case heard in the US under the Alien Tort Claims Act, a move which Pfizer’s lawyers fought.
The Food and Drugs Administration eventually granted approval for use on adults in the US, but not on children. Following the exposure of liver related conditions its use was further circumscribed. Trovan has not been approved for use in Europe.
Further information is available in an article published by the Washington Post in 2000, as part of its series “The Body Hunters”, “As Drug testing Spreads, Profits and Lives Hang in the Balance.”
Other chapters in Dying for Drugs chronicle Big Pharma’s modus operandi in three other areas: silencing critical medical research; pharmaceutical pricing; effects of compulsory licenses (and their absence) on the lives of AIDS patients. Director Brian Woods met John Le Carre and Fernando Mereilles during production of “The Constant Gardener” in 2005, and copies of the film were distributed to members of the cast.
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