Supreme Court on Pfizer's Pharmaceutical Colonialism

| Fri Jul. 2, 2010 11:54 AM EDT

While the media was chewing over the Supreme Court’s gun decision earlier in the week, another significant action passed with little comment. That was the court’s refusal to throw out a case brought under the Alien Tort Statute on behalf of Nigerians whose children died or suffered terrible damage in a Pfizer drug experiment.

The case is of considerable importance, because so many drug companies have conducted tests of new medicine’s abroad in poor countries, using the residents as lab rats in what some have dubbed “pharmaceutical colonialism.” The BBC reports:

The US Supreme Court on Tuesday declined to take up a case examining whether drug giant Pfizer could be sued in an American court for allegedly conducting nonconsensual drug tests on 200 Nigerian children in 1996. The action allows the case to move toward a trial. Eleven of the children died, and many others were left blind, deaf, paralyzed, or brain-damaged, according to court documents.

At issue in the Supreme Court appeal was whether the surviving children and relatives of the children were entitled to file a lawsuit in New York seeking to hold Pfizer responsible. Usually, such a suit would be filed in Nigeria. Lawyers for the children complained that Nigerian judges are corrupt and that the US court system holds the only promise of justice.

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The suit was filed under the Alien Tort Statute (ATS), which empowers federal judges to hear civil lawsuits filed by non-US citizens for violations of the “law of nations.” Lawyers for Pfizer denied that the Nigeria experiments were conducted without the consent and knowledge of the children and their guardians. In addition, the lawyers argued that the children’s case should be thrown out of court because the alleged drug experiments are not the precise type of international law violation covered under the ATS. What made the high court appeal potentially significant is that the Supreme Court has declared that foreign plaintiffs may rely on the ATS to file lawsuits, but only in a few limited circumstances. The high court has not yet identified precisely which few cases may be brought and which may not.

For those interested in reading more on this grim subject, this long piece that appeared in Der Spiegel back in 2007 provides details on the Pfizer case. Sonia Shah’s 2006 book The Body Hunters uncovers other unethical drug trials throughout the developing world. And if you’re looking for some timely summer reading, John Le Carre’s 2001 book The Constant Gardener reimagines the story as a thriller, with Big Pharma cast as one of the leading villains of the post-Cold War world--which, of course, they are.

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