Victims of STD experiments seek $1 billion
BALTIMORE — As part of government experiments conducted in the 1940s in Guatemala, hundreds of men were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases. Now nearly 800 former research subjects and their families have filed a billion-dollar lawsuit against a U.S. university, drugmaker and foundation for their roles in the work.
The lawsuit seeks to hold Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore responsible for the experiments because its doctors held key roles on panels that reviewed and approved federal spending on the work. Filed Wednesday in Baltimore Circuit Court, the suit also names the Rockefeller Foundation and drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants.
It is the victims’ latest effort to be compensated for the experiments, which government officials including President Obama called “clearly unethical” and apologized for in 2010. A federal judge dismissed the victims’ claims against top U.S. officials in 2012 on a legal technicality, but encouraged them to appeal to politicians for the compensation they deserve.
Johns Hopkins officials called the experiments “deplorable” and “unconscionable,” while a Rockefeller spokesman labeled them “morally repugnant.” Both institutions said they had no role in designing, paying for or carrying out the research and would fight the lawsuit.
Bristol-Myers Squibb officials declined to comment.
“For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. government’s Guatemala study and its legacy,” Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe said in an email. “This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”
The Guatemala experiments have been compared to the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiment, which prompted creation of much of the ethical and legal standards that now protect human research subjects. In the Tuskegee experiment, the U.S. Public Health Service was studying the progression of syphilis in black men in rural Alabama, and researchers were faulted for failing to treat the men even after penicillin was discovered as a treatment for the disease.
In Guatemala, however, researchers deliberately infected subjects from 1946 to 1948 with syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid, a disease characterized by painful genital sores.
The experiments came as government researchers looked for ways to prevent sexually transmitted diseases from spreading, particularly among soldiers at war.
A committee of the National Research Council dedicated to venereal diseases was responsible for reviewing the studies’ designs and approving them for federal funding, according to the 2011 report on the Guatemala experiments by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. A Johns Hopkins doctor chaired the panel, and three others with ties to Hopkins were members in 1946 when it reviewed a proposal for the Guatemala research, according to the report. The lawsuit seeks to use those roles to connect Hopkins to the study.
The lawsuit seeks at least $75,000 in actual damages for each of nine counts, including negligence and the wrongful deaths of 124 of the plaintiffs, and $1 billion in punitive damages.