Suits Saying Pfizer Experimented on Nigerian Children Are Revived

By Joe Stephens
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 2009

A federal appeals court on Friday revived two lawsuits brought against Pfizer by Nigerian families who say the giant drugmaker used their children in an illegal test of an experimental antibiotic.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit in New York ruled that the suits, dismissed earlier by a lower-court judge who said they should have been brought in Nigeria, can now go forward in the U.S. courts. Lawyers said the ruling could set a precedent affecting other American companies accused of wrongdoing overseas.

The lawsuits seek unspecified damages on behalf of the families, who say Pfizer violated international law by testing the drug, known as Trovan, on perilously ill children without their knowledge. Eleven children died during the 1996 clinical trial, carried out during a record meningitis epidemic. Other children developed brain damage and crippling arthritis.

"This is a home run for us," said Richard P. Altschuler, an attorney for the families. "The judges are making a statement. They are telling companies, 'If you go overseas, justice will come back to the United States.' "

Pfizer also is the target of criminal and civil legal actions in Nigeria, where authorities are seeking damages of more than $8 billion. While the ruling in New York has no direct effect on the Nigerian actions, lawyers in the case said it could complicate long-running settlement negotiations there.

Pfizer issued a statement dismissing the court action as "only a procedural ruling."

"It is not a determination on their merits," the statement said. "Indeed, the strong dissent by one of the judges may be grounds for further appellate proceedings. Pfizer remains confident that it will prevail in these cases, and is weighing its options on how to best respond to this decision."

Pfizer said the clinical study was conducted with the approval of the Nigerian government and the consent of the participants' parents or guardians. The trial violated no international or Nigerian laws, the company said.

The experiment came to light in December 2000, when The Washington Post published a lengthy examination of the trial. It found that Pfizer carried out the experiment on 200 children at a makeshift epidemic camp in the Nigerian town of Kano. The articles reported that Pfizer had no signed consent forms for the children and relied on a falsified ethics approval letter to defend the design of the experiment.

Trovan was never approved for use by American children. The Food and Drug Administration approved it for adults in 1998 but later severely restricted its use after reports of liver failure. The European Union banned the drug in 1999.

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