Nigeria Takes On Big Pharma

It’s bad enough when powerful nations and corporations in the developed world exploit the natural resources of the developing world. But it’s simply egregious when those same powerful entities seek to further their wealth and influence by exploiting people in the developing world. In today’s Washington Post, Joe Stephens reprises some of his earlier work and reports on how, more than a decade ago, pharmaceutical giant Pfizer illicitly used children stricken with meningitis in Nigeria as guinea pigs to test a new antibiotic medication:

Pfizer Faces Criminal Charges in Nigeria

Officials in Nigeria have brought criminal charges against pharmaceutical giant Pfizer for the company’s alleged role in the deaths of children who received an unapproved drug during a meningitis epidemic.

Authorities in Kano, the country’s largest state, filed eight charges this month related to the 1996 clinical trial, including counts of criminal conspiracy and voluntarily causing grievous harm. They also filed a civil lawsuit seeking more than $2 billion in damages and restitution from Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company.

The move represents a rare — perhaps unprecedented — instance in which the developing world’s anger at multinational drug companies has boiled over into criminal charges. It also represents the latest in a string of public-relations blows stemming from the decade-old clinical trial, in which Pfizer says it acted ethically.

The government alleges that Pfizer researchers selected 200 children and infants from crowds at a makeshift epidemic camp in Kano and gave about half of the group an untested antibiotic called Trovan. Researchers gave the other children what the lawsuit describes as a dangerously low dose of a comparison drug made by Hoffmann-La Roche. Nigerian officials say Pfizer’s actions resulted in the deaths of an unspecified number of children and left others deaf, paralyzed, blind or brain-damaged.

The lawsuit says that the researchers did not obtain consent from the children’s families and that the researchers knew Trovan to be an experimental drug with life-threatening side effects that was “unfit for human use.” Parents were banned from the ward where the drug trial occurred, the suit says, and the company left no medical records in Nigeria.

Pfizer and its doctors “agreed to do an illegal act,” the criminal charges state, and behaved “in a manner so rash and negligent as to endanger human life.” [full text]

Additional background on this case can be found in a damning exposé written by Joe Stephens in the Washington Post in 2000, entitled “As Drug Testing Spreads, Profits and Lives Hang in Balance.”