Nigeria sues Pfizer over drug trial scandal

Nigeria says Pfizer's antibiotic injections were illegally tested Copyright: CDC

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[ABUJA] The Nigerian government is demanding US$7 billion in compensation from the pharmaceutical company Pfizer for damages resulting from a clinical trial run by the company in April 1996.

Pfizer administered an experimental antibiotic called Trovan to 233 children with bacterial meningitis during an epidemic in the northern Nigerian state of Kano.

The government claims that Pfizer conducted the trial “illegally and pretentiously” and that 196 children died as a result of taking the drug. They also claim the 37 surviving children suffered various health problems — including deafness and muteness, paralysis, brain damage, loss of sight and slurred speech. 

In the legal documents filed at the federal high court in Abuja, the government accused Pfizer of “fraudulent representation, illegal/unethical conduct and practice, negligence and contravention of customary international law”.

The government is claiming US$5 billion for general damages, approximately US$500 million to cover the cost of treatment, compensation and support provided to children who took part in the test, and US$450 million for funds allegedly spent on public awareness campaigns related to the test.

They are also claiming US$1 billion compensation for health programmes and initiatives — such as routine polio immunisation programmes — that allegedly failed as a result of the outcome of the trial.

An official from the ministry of health, who asked to remain nameless, said the government had waited to gather sufficient evidence before instigating the lawsuit.

The counsel to Pfizer, Chief Afe Babalola, senior advocate of Nigeria, denied all allegations against his client.

Babalola said Trovan had been used in America and Europe on more than 50,000 people and that none had died or suffered the same health problems as the alleged victims.

Trovan has since been approved in the United States for use in adults, but not for children.

A spokesperson from Pfizer, Bryant Haskins, said in a statement (5 June) that the Nigerian government “was fully informed in advance of the clinical trials” and that the allegations against Pfizer are “not based on all the facts”.

Babalola urged the court to grant a speedy hearing of the case to clear the “assault and bruises” it had caused to the reputation of his client.

The case will continue on 26 June 2007.

In 2005, a court in the United States dismissed a lawsuit brought forward by several Nigerian families who said they were not sufficiently warned that their children could be affected by the drug.

In a separate case lodged in 2005, the Kano state government is also seeking US$2.7 billion in compensation from Pfizer.