Pharma sector facing probes over former East German tests | News | DW | 13.05.2013
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Pharma sector facing probes over former East German tests

German authorities have begun probes against former West German drug companies that allegedly used unknowing East German patients for testing. Lawmakers across the country's political spectrum are calling for justice.

A number of health and government institutions across Germany vowed in-depth investigations into allegations of unethical pharmaceutical testing by Western companies before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

According to an article by the widely-read German news magazine "Der Spiegel," Western pharmaceutical entities, including West German firms, commissioned over 600 tests in former East Germany.

They allegedly paid up to 800,000 West German marks - about 400,000 euros ($520,000) - for each study.

Files from the former East German secret police - the Stasi - and the Institute for Drug Regulatory Affairs, showed that over 50,000 patients had participated in the studies, Spiegel said.

The "Spiegel" article contends that many patients involuntarily took part in the research to assess the affects of various pharmaceutical products, including chemotherapeutic substances and heart medication.

Spiegel quoted from the minutes from a March 1989 meeting at the company Hoechst, now part of healthcare company Sanofi: "The patient's consent was documented by the doctor and a witness."

The federal government's current commissioner for eastern German Affairs, Christoph Bergner of Chancellor Angela Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party, expressed outrage, reflecting numerous reactions in Germany on Monday, a day after the Spiegel story broke.

"The facts available to us must be investigated as extensively as possible and the background explained," Bergner told the Halle-based newspaper "Mitteldeutsche Zeitung" on Monday.

"It's time for independent investigations to get underway," he said.

'Massive scandal'

Claims in the "Spiegel" article contradict Cold War depictions of a "good," democratic West Germany interested in helping its isolated brethren in the East.

It would be a "massive scandal if thousands of DDR citizens - [whose rights under DDR law had presumably been violated] were made into cheap guinea pigs," said Bergner, adding that perpetrators should face legal consequences if found guilty.

Historical documentation has shown a policy of encroachment on East German citizens' rights from the state's birth in 1949 until its fall in 1990.

The Stasi's wide-spread surveillance efforts and the threat of punishment for activities deemed threatening to the state quashed the hopes of many who wanted to escape. In the years since reunification, former West Germany has retained a reputation for offering refuge to East Germans during the Cold War.

The deputy chairperson of Chancellor Merkel's CDU group in the Bundestag parliament Arnold Vaatz suggested that victims might be able to seek compensation if the evidence proved the allegations were true.

"If [the testing] resulted in bodily harm all the way to the loss of life, then it becomes a question of compensation for damages. And then the question of liability has to be answered," Vaatz told the daily "Berliner Zeitung" on Monday.

According the "Spiegel" article, the companies which responded to its inquiries had distanced themselves from the testing by arguing the studies had been conducted many years ago. They had also contended that pharmaceutical testing had followed strict regulations as a matter of principle, it said.

Many groups investigating

The German government reportedly began working on Monday to establish funding for the various investigative groups.

Among others, the Berlin-based agency mandated with curating former Stasi files and the regional state of Thuringia called for an extensive investigation and clarification of the allegations.

The spokesperson for the Berlin-based Stasi files commission, Dagmar Hovestädt, emphasized that hospital archives, not the Stasi files agency, would have archived the source material cited by "Der Spiegel."

Thuringia's minister for scientific affairs, Christoph Matschie of the opposition Social Democrats, announced the formation of a research group at the University of Jena's hospital tasked with investigating the case.

Berlin's renowned research hospital, Charite, also said its medical history research unit would review the available evidence.

kms/ipj (AFP, dpa)

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