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Wednesday, 14 March, 2001, 15:21 GMT
Nigeria's drug trial fears

By Barnaby Phillips in Kano

Tudun Wada is a poor neighbourhood in central Kano. It is crowded, dirty and hot - ideal conditions for a meningitis epidemic.

And in 1996 the disease swept through the area, leaving thousands dead, and thousands more permanently disabled.

The people of Kano are no strangers to meningitis, but this epidemic was exceptional. As the death-toll rose, state radio told families to take sick children, as quickly as possible, to the Infectious Diseases Hospital, where the aid organisation Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) was providing free emergency treatment.

What the radio did not say was that the giant American drugs company Pfizer was also at the hospital, conducting tests on a powerful new drug, Trovan.

Society should be grateful to Pfizer because we came to help save lives

Pfizer's Lere Baale
A nurse from the hospital said many parents unwittingly allowed the Pfizer team to test the drug on their children.

"The parents agree with them because they already saw MSF people helping them, so they thought they too were MSF people," he said. "Some of the parents, whatever you will do to them, they will agree because they want their children to be cured if you give them treatment."

Media uproar

Abu Abdullah's family will never recover from the epidemic. Her son, Sani is partially disabled - her daughter Firdausi is deaf, dumb and almost completely paralysed. Both were treated in the hospital.

Pfizer is best known for its Viagra drug
Abu's confused recollections are typical of all the families I spoke to in Kano.

She handed over her children to a white man - she did not know if that person was from Pfizer or MSF. She was distressed at the time - and she lost the piece of paper the white man gave her. Anyway, she cannot read.

Ever since the news of the tests emerged three months ago, Pfizer has been under siege. There has been uproar in the Nigerian press.

Until now, Pfizer's West Africa headquarters, in Lagos, has refused to comment. But in an exclusive interview for the BBC Radio 4's Today programme, Pfizer's Pharmaceutical Director Lere Baale said the company had been badly misrepresented.

'Already tested'

"We forget about the scientific breakthrough we were able to make, we forget about the beauty of lives that were saved," he said.

"And indeed, society should be grateful to Pfizer because we came to help save lives, and we reduced the death rate by half relative to other common medications that were in use".

Pfizer said it did not get written consent from those involved in the tests, because it was dealing with illiterates. It said its staff did explain what they were doing - and that the drug had already been tested in America.

It also said it had the permission of the Nigerian authorities - it showed the US government a letter purporting to be from the ethics committee of Kano's teaching hospital, dated March 1996, approving the tests.

But Dr Sadiq Wali, the medical director of that hospital, said that letter was deliberately backdated.

Dr Wali: The hospital did not approve the tests...
Barnaby Phillips: Did an ethics committee exist at that time in this hospital?
Dr: There was no ethics committee at that time. The ethics committee in this hospital started in October 1996, that's about six months after the tests.
BP: So the letter is a lie, basically?
Dr: Yes, the letter is not genuine.

Pfizer said it was not responsible for the forgery - and did not know who was. Meanwhile the company's dream - that the powerful antibiotic Trovan would prove hugely lucrative in the West - has been shattered.

The drug has been withdrawn from European and American markets after a number of Trovan patients developed serious liver problems. Some died. Trovan's use is now severely restricted.

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See also:

13 Mar 01 | Africa
Diseases hit northwest Nigeria
09 Mar 99 | Medical notes
12 Feb 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Nigeria
08 Nov 00 | Business
Pfizer loses Viagra patent
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