Vic­tims of STD ex­per­i­ments seek $1 bil­lion

Los Angeles Times - - THE WORLD - By Scott Dance sdance@balt­

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.

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