Deadly Drug Trials: Western Firms Bribed East German Doctors
2013-05-24 0:00

By Nicola Kuhrt and Peter Wensierski | Spiegel

It wasn’t just the East German government that benefited from risky patient drug trials commissioned by Western pharmaceutical manufacturers decades ago. These companies also sent liaisons with lavish gifts to bribe and influence doctors to participate.

The presents always came in the springtime. When the representatives of Western pharmaceutical companies arrived at the Leipzig Trade Fair, they made sure that East German doctors were very well looked after.

One doctor enthusiastically described his experiences in a subsequent report to the Ministry of State Security, or Stasi. According to his account, things would get off to a cheerful start every morning at the booth run by Mack, now a Pfizer subsidiary: "There was champagne on the table, along with a carton of cigarettes, and the usual cosmetic products for my wife."

After that, he would head over to Swiss drug maker Ciba-Geigy, now part of Novartis. The doctor, an orthopedist identified by the code name "Jörg," says that he was taken "behind the scenes" and treated "very smoothly." At the booth for Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical industry supplier Degussa (now part of Evonik Industries), a representative made an effort to set things right with the physician when he learned that gifts sent for his children hadn’t yet arrived. The rep promised they would be sent as a "direct package shipment."

The physician then proceeded to booths operated by Bayer, along with a British, an American and a Swiss company. After a few hours, "Jörg," then a department head in a hospital in Schwedt, in the state of Brandenburg, felt pleasantly tipsy. "By noon, I was almost drunk, and my head was filled with dirty stories about women that were not exactly professional."

Pharmaceutical companies from West Germany and other Western countries exercised little restraint when they wanted to test new drugs on the other side of the Berlin Wall. They paid the government of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) millions for extensive clinical trials, in which at least 50,000 East German citizens served as subjects, often unknowingly.

It has now emerged that these envoys from the West were running a corrupt system to recruit East German doctors for their controversial drug trials. Companies like Bayer and Sandoz also employed lobbyists to develop high-level contacts in the GDR.

Everyone Wins, Except for the Patient

It was a mutually beneficial arrangement. The companies gained access to clinical trial results at a low cost, while their partners in the East received cash, gifts and medical technology for their hospitals. According to a Stasi report, in 1981 alone, the companies sent East German researchers about 250 invitations for what were usually lavishly funded trips to the West. "To promote their commercial interests," the Stasi files read, the companies took advantage of "opportunities involving corruption and bribery."

The patients, however, were treated with far less consideration. They were neither compensated nor thoroughly informed about what would be done to their bodies, say victims today. Survivors report that they have yet to receive compensation for the harm they suffered.


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