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Corporations Are Patenting Human Genes and Tissues -- Here's Why That's Terrifying

A medical ethicist explains the dark implications of corporate medical patents and the nightmarish scenario of our medical-industrial complex.

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We have a new cancer medication, for example, that has been devised by testing it on people in the developing world so that you and I can take it without fear that we're going to drop dead, hopefully. We owe the people in the developing world that. The corporations save so much money by using those people for their tests. Speed is very important because it maximizes the amount of patent time so they can make more profit from their patent. Also the FDA requires that studies be completed within two and a half years, which is sometimes difficult to do.

So providing them with drugs that they have made possible would seem to be the very least we could do. Yet there's constant reluctance to provide medications for people in the developing world.

BJ: Clinical trials in developing countries can also involve testing subjects in dangerous circumstances that wouldn't even be legal in this country. You point to the example of Pfizer's clinical trials for an antibiotic in Kano, Nigeria in the 1990s. What went wrong?

HW: They tested Trovan in Kano and they waited until -- this is quite typical, actually -- they waited until there was a meningitis epidemic to test their meningitis drug. First of all, these are people who typically go their whole life without getting any medical care. They can't go to the doctor, can't buy medicines. When they're sick they just hope and do the best they can to treat each other.

So there's an epidemic. You've got people, especially children, dying wholesale. And Doctors Without Borders had flown in and were working feverishly around the clock trying to save as many children as they could. Doctors Without Borders had a huge tent there for a clinic. Pfizer flew its people in and set up shop right next to them. The people of Kano could not discern the difference between the Pfizer tent and the Doctors Without Borders tent. All they knew was that there were doctors and medicines in both tents. If they couldn't get into one, they went into the other one.

Now I don't believe they received informed consent. First of all, the records were lost. Pfizer [said it] lost the records that would've proved informed consent. Then Pfizer produced some letters from local doctors and local medical boards saying there was informed consent, but they were clearly forged. One doctor admitted that they were forged. Another doctor pointed out that the medical institution that supposedly approved this trial had not even been set up until a year or two after the trial had ended. So all the evidence points to the probability that these people did not receive informed consent.

But then I also ask myself, even if they had gotten informed consent, did they have a real choice? They wanted their children to get any kind of medicine. So it was inherently a coercive environment.

And Pfizer would give this medication and it did not follow prescribed methods of conducting research in this country. Although some of the things they did were permissible in their country. For example, the young girl whose fate I chronicled -- she was given Trovan, didn't get any better, in fact she got worse. And had she been in, say, Connecticut or New York, if she had gotten worse, then they would've switched her from experimental therapy to one that was known to work. They didn't do that there. And she died, other children died, other children went deaf, other children had all kinds of neurological problems. In fact, there were so many deaths and so many permanent serious problems resulting from it, the FDA would not approve the drug.

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