Pfizer Scandal

In John le Carré’s most recent novel, The Constant Gardener, an unscrupulous multinational drug company goes to murderous lengths in Kenya to ensure its profitability. Following a recent scandal in Nigeria involving the drug company Pfizer, many in that country believe that Le Carré’s dark vision may not be far from the truth.

Allegations against Pfizer first surfaced in December 2000, when The Washington Post broke a story about the company’s use of the experimental drug trovafloxacin (commonly called Trovan) to treat a 1996 meningitis outbreak in Nigeria’s Kano district. At issue was the company’s possible breach of global ethical guidelines on pharmaceutical trials. Pfizer, which hoped that Trovan would become a multibillion-dollar brand, had been waiting for an opportunity to test the drug on children suffering from cerebrospinal meningitis (CSM). Since meningitis epidemics occur very infrequently in the United States, the 1996 Nigerian epidemic presented a rare opportunity for a trial.

Due to the nature of the epidemic, however, Pfizer’s trial was set up hastily in conditions where parents of meningitis-infected children were panicking. Some of these parents have claimed that they did not know they were submitting their children to a trial of an experimental drug and were not told Trovan had never been tested on children. Of the 200 children who participated in the trial, five of those given Trovan died and many others were left with disabilities.

Pfizer was quick to defend itself, stating in a Dec. 17 press release that “the Nigerian trovafloxacin trial was an important clinical investigation, and Pfizer is proud of the way the trial was conducted.” But the company’s statement did little to quell growing anger in Nigeria, where commentators decried the drug company’s arrogance and its use of Nigerians as “guinea pigs.”

On Jan. 4, an editorial in the independent Guardian of Lagos proposed that “the drug manufacturer’s statement that its test was conducted ‘in accordance with good medical practice and ethical norms’ is not convincing” and that “Pfizer has to do much more to prove that its hands are not stained with the blood of innocent Nigerian children.” The independent Vanguard Daily of Lagos agreed, saying that Pfizer’s claim that it was acting on humanitarian grounds was “coating a lie in a glossy, believable color.” (Jan. 10).

In addition to blaming Pfizer, many commentators 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 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.