East Germans guinea pigs for Western drug trials, TV doco reveals

By Tony Paterson

The ARD documentary 'Tests and the Dead', aired for the first time this week. Photo / File / David White
The ARD documentary 'Tests and the Dead', aired for the first time this week. Photo / File / David White

Communist East Germany allowed Western drug companies to use its medical patients as unwitting guinea pigs for tests with untried pharmaceuticals in return for hundreds of thousands in hard currency, a television documentary by Germany's ARD television channel has revealed.

The disturbing disclosures about the former communist state's patients-for-cash scheme comes only weeks after an admission by the Swedish furniture giant Ikea that East German political prisoners were used to make its products before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.

The ARD documentary Tests and the Dead, which was aired for the first time this week, sheds light on other dubious practices East Germany resorted to in an attempt to sustain its failing economy.

The film reveals how Western pharmaceutical companies deliberately turned to financially strapped Eastern Bloc countries in their search for human guinea pigs after the 1960s Thalidomide scandal, which had suddenly obliged them to carry out rigorous tests on their products before they could be sold.

In the West, the law stipulated that any patients taking part in drug tests had to be fully informed of the risks. However, in communist East Germany such restrictions appear to have been waived in an increasingly desperate effort to procure enough hard currency to rescue an ailing economy and a crippled health system.

Using information gleaned from East German Stasi secret police files, the film shows how, in 1983, Communist Party Central Committee members hatched a secret deal with Western drug companies enabling them to test their unlicensed products on unwitting patients by using specially selected doctors and clinics.

Hubert Bruchmuller, a former East German who now lives on a disability allowance because of a heart complaint, recalled in the film how he was used as an unwitting guinea pig.

The documentary makers showed that without his knowledge, he had been given the drug Spirapril, made by the pharmaceutical company Sandoz, while being treated for a heart complaint. Six of the 17 patients in the clinic in the city of Lotsau died before doctors were ordered to stop testing, according to Stasi files.

By 1988, East Germany was said to have signed a total of 165 contracts with Western companies for drug testing. Studies suggested Western companies had paid the equivalent of €430,000 ($534,000) to the communist regime to test their products on the sick.Independent

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