Corruption unltd. 2: Pfizer in Nigeria – dead kids, death threats and deadly drugs (2)
In 2000 the Washington Post published a major exposé accusing Pfizer of testing a dangerous new antibiotic called Trovan on children in Nigeria without receiving proper consent from their parents. The experiment occurred during a 1996 meningitis epidemic in the country. In 2001 Pfizer was sued in U.S. federal court by thirty Nigerian families, who accused the company of using their children as human guinea pigs.
Read the first part of the article
Timeline of the legal case
Another good report on the cables found in mainstream-media comes from the Atlantic (2010):
“In 2000, following the Post revelations, a cry for justice in the Nigerian media triggered street protests and an investigation by Nigeria’s health ministry, whose report on the incident went missing until 2006, when a leaked version revealed that the health officials had reached more or less the same verdict as the fired Pfizer expert: The experiment was ‘an illegal trial of an unregistered drug,’ a ‘clear case of exploitation of the ignorant,’ and a violation of Nigerian and international law.
These disclosures prompted a raft of civil and criminal lawsuits in Kano State Court on behalf of the families and in Federal High Court on behalf of the nation itself, as it were. But Pfizer kept the suits tangled up in proceedings to postpone any settlement.”
A State Department cable dated April 20, 2009 and released by WikiLeaks, however, suggests that Pfizer’s legal strategy was not simply to delay – it was also to blackmail. Written by an economic counselor at the US embassy in Abuja, Nigeria, the cable reports minutes of meetings during which Pfizer representatives informed the U.S. ambassador that the firm had agreed to settle the Kano State suit for $75 million, mere pocket change for the pharma giant. The ambassador was told that Pfizer “was not happy settling the case, but had come to the conclusion that the $75 million figure was reasonable because the suits had been ongoing for many years costing Pfizer more than $15 million a year in legal and investigative fees.”
It was how Pfizer deployed these fees that dropped a bombshell:
“According to [Pfizer country manager Enrico] Liggeri, Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to Federal Attorney General Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer’s investigators were passing this information to local media. A series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa’s ‘alleged’ corruption ties were published in February and March. Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.”
Blessed with immense reserves of oil, Nigeria, like many oil-rich developing nations, has in turn been cursed with extravagant corruption. Aondoakaa was among those caught up in it. The cable does not mention Pfizer’s settlement of the $6 billion federal lawsuit, which was signed in secret by lawyers from Pfizer and the Aondoakaa-led Nigerian ministry of justice in October 2009. With the settlement’s terms under wraps, how much Pfizer paid and to whom remains a mystery.
In February 2010, Aondoakaa was booted from the government over charges of corruption. Pfizer denies the version of events reported by the U.S. Department of State official. “Any notion that the company hired investigators in connection to the former attorney general is simply preposterous,” Christopher Loder, a Pfizer spokesman, told The New York Times.
When an e-mail arrived at Loder asking for comment about the allegations in the WikiLeaks cables, he repeated his statement to the Times verbatim, adding that the cases had been “resolved in 2009 by mutual agreement” and that Pfizer’s conduct was “proper.”
The 1996 Trovan tragedy has cast a long shadow. In 2003, the parents of Kano State boycotted a U.S.-made polio vaccine, threatening to single-handedly short-circuit the global initiative to eradicate the disease. These parents bore the legacy of the Trovan trial and the ensuing years of failed and foiled litigation. Suspicion and cynicism of Western motives ran so deep that they accepted their local clerics’ warnings that the polio vaccine was a plot by Christians to sterilize their daughters, relenting only when health officials switched to a vaccine manufacturer based in Indonesia, a Muslim nation.
Despite all this, Pfizer apparently perceives itself as the real victim. As detailed in the leaked cable, Liggeri portrayed Pfizer to the ambassador as entirely the injured party, dismissing the lawsuits as “wholly political in nature” and asserting that during the meningitis outbreak in 1996, MSF also administered Trovan to children. (When asked for comment by the Guardian, Jean-Hervé Bradol, former president of MSF France, said, “We have never worked with this family of antibiotic. We don’t use it for meningitis. That is the reason why we were shocked to see this trial in the hospital.”) Liggeri warned darkly that the lawsuit against Pfizer had so chilled the entire pharmaceutical industry that “when another outbreak occurs no company will come to Nigeria’s aid.” Whether or not that’s true, it’s not clear that Nigerians would want Pfizer’s help after all.
However, it took some real alternative independent media to reveal the gravity of the situation, in 2010, when the Democracy Now! news outlet hosted an Washington Post reporter involved in the case and a Nigerian journalist. The deadliest details came together:
“After our stories, there was an official federal investigation in Nigeria. But it was never made public. It disappeared. And many years later, we finally got a copy of this report. It concluded that Pfizer had violated both Nigerian law and international law and was very critical. It also mentioned that members of the investigative panel had been the target of death threats during their investigation. We were told there were three copies of this report. Attorneys in the U.S. who brought a class action lawsuit said they had spent years trying to find this report that we came up with. One they tracked to a safe. And when they opened the safe, it was not there. Another was supposedly in the possession of a man who died before lawyers got to him.
After we made this report public, there was a new set of public officials in power in Nigeria, and they decided to bring criminal and civil charges against Pfizer, including homicide – both Pfizer and some current and former employees of Pfizer. The state of Kano in the northern Nigeria settled for $75 million. The federal charges, which initially were seeking $7 billion from Pfizer, just sort of evaporated. We never knew what occured to them. And now, this new revelation comes out and raises very serious questions about why those charges just evaporated.” – Joe Stephens is a staff writer for the Washington Post. He was part of the investigative team that broke the story in 2000.
Musikilu Mojeed, a Nigerian journalist who has worked on this story for the NEXT newspaper in Lagos, commented the following: “Nigerians are clearly outraged by this revelation that Pfizer hired investigators to smear the attorney general, to blackmail him to drop the federal charges. But not a lot of people are entirely surprised in Nigeria, because before the WikiLeaks cable came out, our newspaper, NEXT, had exposed the mysterious disappearance of the federal charges against Pfizer. You know, suddenly, the case just disappeared. Nobody knew how the case was withdrawn. Nigerians were not told. It was just done in secret. And our newspaper broke this story. That is, a $6 billion federal suit against Pfizer disappeared secretly, that the attorney general simply did – went into a secret deal with Pfizer and a few Nigerian lawyers without anybody knowing about it. In fact, Pfizer may have violated U.S. law, because Pfizer refused to disclose the details of that settlement, even in its filing for the quarter of 2009 to the U.S. government. So, Nigerians are clearly outraged.
And even the attorney general, the former attorney general, himself, is threatening that he might sue Pfizer for blackmailing him. But in any case, the attorney general himself is known to be terribly corrupt. So a lot of people are not surprised, because he’s known to be a corrupt man. He cannot enter the United States, because the U.S. government has barred him, has withdrawn his visa and that of his family, because he’s known to be corrupt. But a lot of people are outraged that Pfizer could go to that extent to hire an investigator to blackmail a Nigerian official.”
Evidences of various forms of wrong-doing on the Pfizer side kept appearing the following years, for exemple this 2011 CBS news piece: Pfizer Bribed Nigerian Officials in Fatal Drug Trial, Ex-Employee Claims:
“A former Pfizer (PFE) employee’s letter to a federal judge alleging that the company put a courier on a KLM flight to Nigeria carrying bribes for local officials is a classic example of how hard it is to get away with corporate skullduggery: The letter cites 40 Pfizer executives, FDA officials and other witnesses who allegedly have inside knowledge of the scandal – not very secret for a secret conspiracy.(…)
The letter was written by Dr. Juan Walterspiel, who in 1996 was a pediatric research physician in Pfizer’s Groton, Conn., facility. He worked on the Trovan trials, but he objected to the testing method being used. Pfizer dismissed him in 1998. His letter claims that:
– Pfizer paid a bribe to continue the study of Trovan.
– Pfizer did not get informed consent from parents of children in the test.
– Pfizer gave fake ethics documents backing the test to the FDA.
– Corners were cut because “Speed was of the essence and stock options and bonuses at stake.”
Pfizer ignored Trovan’s poential reaction with antacids, which are often given to patients who have had surgery.
– The FDA started but mysteriously called off an investigation into the scandal.
– One patient in the Trovan arm of the experiment died without being taken off Torvan or given medical care. Normally, if patients react badly to experimental drugs researchers take them off the therapy and give them medical care.
– Pfizer has photographs of the members of its Kano team.
The letter was previously dismissed in a previous ruling in the case as “speculative” and too filled with hearsay to be regarded as evidence. Pfizer told BNET:
“Dr. Juan Walterspiel’s employment with Pfizer was terminated in 1998 for legitimate and proper reasons. Dr. Walterspiel did not travel to Nigeria to participate in the 1996 Trovan clinical trial and thus has no direct or first-hand knowledge of the conduct of the clinical trial. Dr. Walterspiel made these similar allegations over 10 years ago, and has repeated them from time to time since then. Pfizer investigated the allegations and found that they were not supported by the facts.”
Walterspiel’s letter was based on an affidavit filed in the case in the early 2000s. At the time, much of the case was under seal and documents were not electronically filed, so Walterspeil’s allegations went largely unnoticed beyond the lawyers who saw them. Walterspiel then wrote to former Pfizer CEO Jeff Kindler in 2007, repeating his claims. He sent a copy of that letter it to Judge William Pauley on Jan. 28, 2011, who entered it onto the record in november 2020.
The letter does not name names. Instead, Walterspeil uses numbers to stand in for the identities of the people he links to the Trovan trial. Three of them knew that Pfizer had sent a cash courier to some Nigerian officials who “needed to be paid off” before the trial could continue.
Pfizer had not obtained the proper ethics committee approvals before the test began, Walterspeigel claims. (Research on human subjects usually requires approval of an independent institutional review board before it can start.) So the paperwork was faked.
The FDA began investigating the Trovan trial but the probe was suddenly ended.
The older ruling supplies some of the names behind the numbers. Local sources also accused corruption between the corporation and the government.”
In addition to blaming Pfizer, many local media commentators also lamented what they saw as a corrupt Nigerian administration that had rubber-stamped the trial without due diligence. “The propensity for corrupt practices on the part of a few venal Nigerians has apparently permitted our people to be used as a laboratory for the unregulated testing of a new drug with obviously bad consequences thereof,” read a Feb. 8 editorial in Lagos’s independent weekly Tempo.
Meanwhile, the residents of Kano have been left with a legacy of fear. The News, a weekly magazine from Lagos, reported on Jan. 29, 2001 that people in the district are refusing new immunizations for CSM, cholera, and measles. “The bature (white men) will kill us again if we allow them to give us…tablets and injections,” they told the magazine.
According to John Murphy’s report for the Baltimore Sun, the Trovan trial may have left some Nigerians distrustful of Western interventions: “Some of Kano’s fears of the vaccine stem from its experience with the U.S. pharmaceutical giant Pfizer Inc.”
“The country’s health authorities say that the Pfizer controversy is partly responsible for many families in northern Nigeria refusing to allow their children to be vaccinated against polio. That in turn has been blamed for an outbreak that spread across parts of Africa. The Kano authorities also refused to distribute the polio vaccine.” – The Guardian 2007.
May 18, 2021