by David Gutierrez
Pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has agreed to pay $75 million to settle a class action lawsuit filed against it by Nigerian parents who claim the company caused harm to their children by using them as guinea pigs in a nonconsensual, unlicensed drug trial.
The case began in 1996, when Pfizer needed a human trial to gain approval for its new antibiotic Trovan. When an epidemic of meningitis, cholera and measles broke out in Kano, Nigeria, the company quickly put together a research team and flew them to that country. Pfizer set up a tent right near the medical station where Doctors Without Borders were giving free treatments and recruited 200 children to participate in an unlicensed drug trial.
Parents say they were not told that proven medications were being distributed only yards away, that their children were being enrolled in a drug trial, or that animal studies had suggested that Trovan could cause liver and joint damage.
Eleven of the 200 children in the study died, and parents claim that others suffered from brain damage, organ failure and other severe side effects.
The case broke when Pfizer researcher Juan Walterspiel, who had been schedule to take part in the trial but was left behind, wrote a letter to Pfizer’s then chief executive William Steere, saying that the Kano study was “in violation of ethical rules.”
“Some of the children were in critical condition and most of them malnourished, which made oral absorption even more unpredictable,” he wrote. “At least one died after a single oral dose.”
Class action lawsuits were filed against the company in a variety of jurisdictions in Kenya and the United States, while various levels of the Nigerian government also filed their own lawsuits against the company.
The current settlement comes in a class action suit filed in Nigeria. In addition to a pending class action suit in the United States, Pfizer may still face criminal prosecution in Nigeria. In January 2008, a Nigerian judge issued arrest warrants for several top company officials after they failed to appear in court.