Did Big Pharma do illegal experimentation during an epidemic in the guise of ‘humanitarian aid’? You decide. In 1996, a meningitis epidemic brought Doctors Without Borders to Nigeria to give antibiotics to victims of a meningitis epidemic. The drug company, Phizer, dedided to also go to the epidemic with antibiotics to give to the ill, but many, including the families that Phizer claimed to have helped, question their motives, alleging unethical and even criminal experimentation on those who were at risk of dying in a developing world epidemic.
Phizer claims they were only giving humanitarian aid, but the families of those given the antibiotics, and even Phizer’s own Statement of Defense, calls it an ‘investigative study’ of Trovan (Trovafloxacin), a Fluoroquinolone drug in the same class of drugs as Cipro, Levaquin, and Avelox, that was untested for both meningitis and in children. Indeed, many drugs in the Fluoroquinolone class have been shown to damage critical connective tissue necessary for growth in children, and have cautions on them to limit them to use in children to only occasions when better drugs are not available. For this, and other reasons, “U.S. guidelines say that meningitis experiments should include long-term follow-ups, [but] Pfizer called for no such checks” (1)
In the case of meningitis and specifically this meningitis outbreak, a drug called chloramphenicol was not only available, but was being actively given to those affected by the outbreak by Doctors Without Borders, a humanitarian relief medical aid group (2). Indeed, Doctors Without Borders (also known as ‘Medicins Sin Fronteras’ or MSF in official documents) was already assisting the ill prior to Phizer’s arrival. While much criticism has been given to Phizer’s alleged ethical wrongdoings (3), little attention has been given to the fact that MSF was using a cheaper drug that was not the ‘gold standard’ for meningitis, and that the overall death toll for the epidemic was 10%, in comparison to the 5% death rate of the children in the Trovan study.(4) However, the ethical considerations and allegations of not only ethical, but criminal misconduct remained, regardless of the outcome of the study.
Ironically, the FDA never approved Trovan either for use in meningitis or in children because “[t]he trial data were so sloppy” (1) and only two years later, Trovan was removed from the market for all but life-threatening illnesses, and only to be used in hospitals, due to liver complications in an excessive number of people. (5)
In fact, it was years after the epidemic that the Washington Post released an investigative news article that the families allegedly discovered they were part of an experiment. Protests against western interests taking advantage of the poverty and advanced illness of the people of Kano occurred throughout the region; and demands for justice from the families of the children who died were sparks to the flame of the fire to come.
Finally, a lawsuit was brought against Phizer, in which a 15 year legal battle ensued with further allegations of ethical misconduct, extortion, criminal misconduct, and even bribery of government officials. In the end, Phizer settled for $75 million dollars, 15 years after the origin of the lawsuit. Only recently are some of the families getting the money promised to them, with a slew of red tape to get through in order to do so.
As a consequence of Phizer’s actions, the entire region was and still is so distrustful of western interests that the people collectively refused to get the smallpox vaccine, fearing westerners attempting to sterilize their children. A solution was found, however, and the region was finally vaccinated after obtaining the vaccine from a company in a Muslim country with no ties to western pharmaceuticals. Lastly, the incident even spawned a fiction book, the Constant Gardener, where the plot revolves around an evil pharmaceutical company, that is based on the incident with Phizer’s Trovan in Nigeria.