Western medical and scientific companies have always used Africa as their testing ground for new medicines, and in the process, they have decimated innocent lives. This has been done to quench an insatiable desire for mega-profits. All ethics and regulatory approvals are thrown out the window for the relentless pursuit of profits. The corporate-driven agenda of valuing profits over human life still plagues modern society at an unprecedented scale.
When a severe meningitis epidemic wreaked havoc in Nigeria in 1996, Pfizer saw a clear opportunity to make immeasurably obscene profits. This was reliant on a new vaccine that was tested on unsuspecting Nigerian children, with the hope that the approval of this new vaccine would usher super-profits for the pharmaceutical company. Because of the adverse effects which the vaccine had on the children (death and disabilities), Pfizer found itself fighting numerous lawsuits while denying liability (both criminal and civil) throughout.
An experimental drug was tried on children without the proper [parental] consent having been obtained, and by flouting several health regulatory laws. The result was a protracted legal battle, in which corruption allegations on the side of Pfizer and the Nigerian government emerged.
As the legal battles reigned supreme, Pfizer obstinately maintained that the children had died from the disease and not from the experimental drug. But everything to do with these drug trials portended doom for Nigerian children and their parents.
At the height of the 1996 meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, Pfizer saw a chance for a big score – to test its ‘broad-spectrum’ antibiotic called Trovan in children. The drug had not yet been approved in the United States, where parents were not willing to put their children up as ‘guinea pigs.’ Forecasts by Wall Street analysts asserted that the drug company could reap $1 billion a year if Trovan, as it was known, won approval for all its potential uses. It was a potential blockbuster, and Pfizer was eerily impatient.
Since the company could not find test subjects, they found a haven (ironic as it is) in Kano, Nigeria. Private interests triumphed over genuine health concerns, and the situation that unfolded was horrific. This drug had never been tested anywhere, nor against meningitis. There was scant independent oversight as regards the drug trials, and patients were tested without fully understanding that they were ‘guinea pigs.’
A Forbes article on this issue written in 2008 reads, “Under pressure to reduce research costs and win fast-track approvals, drug companies do 43% of their clinical trials abroad, up from 14% ten years ago. The Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development says that number will rise to 65% within three years.”
200 children were part of the experiment, and as many as 11 died. Other children suffered meningitis-related symptoms such as deafness, lameness, blindness, seizures, disorientation, and, in one case, an inability to walk or talk. Some of the children had received lower doses than recommended.
The company was desperate for data so that their drug could get approved. A process that should have at least taken a whole year (or longer) was concluded in six weeks. Trovan was later approved in the U.S. market for adults and not children. Two years later, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) warned that the drug could cause liver damage and death, and it has since been discontinued.
In Kano, parents were unaware that their children were part of a drug experiment, nor were they informed that an adjacent clinic by the Medicines San Frontieres could have given their children a proven antibiotic. Neither were they told about the risks of Trovan, the oral antibiotic on which the experiments were premised on.
The Washington Post unearthed this scandal, and the Nigerian health ministry authored a report (which went missing until 2006) which gave a damning verdict - 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. Ethical rules were violated for the selfish purposes of medical experiments in humans.
Thereafter, the legal battles ensued. The parents of the children who died, together with the Nigerian government, demanded compensation from the giant drug company. But Pfizer employed delay tactics so that it could evade settlement.
The families of the deceased children tried to sue in the American courts, but their suit was dismissed. Kano State also tried to sue in the U.S. courts, but postponements made the efforts futile.
Nigeria filed some court papers in 2007 (in Abuja) when it sued the company and some of the papers read, “The plaintiff contends that the defendant never obtained the approval of the relevant regulatory agencies ... nor did the defendant seek or receive approval to conduct any clinical trial at any time before their illegal conduct.”
Pfizer maintained their innocence, saying, “These allegations against Pfizer, which are not new, are highly inflammatory and not based on all the facts. We continue to maintain, in the strongest terms, that the Nigerian government was fully informed in advance of the clinical trial; that the trial was conducted appropriately, ethically and with the best interests of patients in mind; and that it helped save lives.”
Pfizer even said that it had obtained “verbal consent” from the parents and that the experimental drugs were administered in a manner that was “sound from medical, scientific, regulatory and ethical standpoints.”
As per leaked Wikileaks cables, Pfizer's country manager admitted that "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."
In 2009, Pfizer agreed to a tentative out-of-court settlement with the Kano State worth $75 million (which was a mere pocket change considering how big Pfizer is). In 2011, the parents of four children who died of meningitis became the first winners of the long-drawn legal battles when Pfizer finally agreed to pay $175,000 to each family.
The families of the four children received payments of $175,000 each after they had submitted DNA samples to show that the dead were their offspring. The compensation was given out by the Healthcare/Meningitis Trust Fund. However, not all parents received compensation.
The story of Pfizer in Nigeria shows how human life can be put secondary to the interests of money. It shows, at great length, what happens when health laws are broken so that a few elites can enjoy the profits. Drug companies are concerned about endless revenue streams, so they conduct experiments on ill-informed patients in foreign countries where there is little independent oversight. As the world grapples with the need for newer medicines, especially in light of COVID-19, the story of what Pfizer did in Nigeria should never be forgotten but should rather serve as a learning curve for governments across the whole world.