11 October 2009, Guardian
Haemophiliacs with HIV to sue firm that sold tainted drug in Asia
Bayer owned company to face victims in Taiwan and Hong Kong over its marketing of infectious blood products
Haemophiliacs in Taiwan and Hong Kong have been given permission to sue a multi-national drugs firm in the US over allegations that they contracted HIV from contaminated blood products that the company knowingly dumped in Asia.
The decision comes as US pharmaceutical firms meet UK victims of the scandal, which affected nearly 6,000 people with haemophilia in Britain during the 1970s and 1980s. Haemophiliacs in the UK were refused permission to sue in the US courts by a judge who said the British courts were better placed to hear the evidence.
Nearly 2,000 of the UK victims have now died in what Lord (Robert) Winston has called "the worst treatment disaster in the history of the NHS".
One man, Haydn Lewis, who contracted HIV from contaminated blood he believed came from the US and then unwittingly passed the virus to his wife, said: "The main reason was to get a judgment in a court of law which suggests which of the two parties were at fault – the companies who provided the products or the Department of Health, which purchased them. For years we've had this denial of responsibility. We are still unaware of who is the guilty party."
The charges by the Taiwanese victims against the company, Cutter, which is now owned by Bayer, are particularly dramatic. The UK and other European authorities refused to buy blood products that had not been heat-treated in the 1980s, for fear of HIV contamination. Documents in the possession of US lawyers show, however, that Cutter did its utmost to continue marketing the products in Asia.
Cutter made a product called Koate, given to haemophiliacs to enable their blood to clot in the event of an injury. Documents in the court case brought on behalf of the Taiwanese haemophiliacs showed that some of the donated blood used to make the drug came from paid prisoners. Prisons had exceptionally high levels of inmates with HIV.
In the mid-1970s it was known that blood products carried a danger of infection from hepatitis, and that those coming from the US were particularly risky.
In the 1980s, once it was recognised that HIV was blood-borne, Cutter's market for non-heat-treated Koate began to dry up. Its executives, it is alleged, decided to carry on supplying the far east regardless. Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman, the US lawyers representing Taiwanese haemophiliacs who contracted HIV from blood transfusions, allege that Cutter put sales above lives. A copy of Cutter's 1985 far east region marketing plan suggests that the strategy was to offload stocks of Koate before the "hysteria over Aids" set in and caused a slump in sales.Sales in New Zealand had been hit as the US products were replaced by local and Commonwealth supplies, the document says. "What Koate business Cutter had left in New Zealand, as of 1982, was terminated when Aids became an issue there," it says. "Aids has not become a major issue in Asia. Perhaps it is because the region has so many other health hazards of greater, more common, concern."
The document says: "The hepatitis risk of American-made concentrates is not of such concern in a region where hepatitis B is so prevalent. If we see a need for a heat-treated product in the far east, we will react to the demand swiftly. Otherwise, we will try to continue to dominate the markets with low-cost Koate and Konyne."
Of 1,200 people in the UK with haemophilia who were infected with HIV, only about 300 are now alive. Of those, some 180 still have cases in the UK courts.
Lawyers for the US drug firms have offered compensation to those affected in the UK, and say the offer will be withdrawn unless 95% of claimants agree to it.
A spokesperson for Bayer said of the Taiwanese case: "Bayer is committed to the highest ethical standards, to promoting our medications responsibly and to providing life-saving therapies for the global haemophilia community." Sarah Boseley, health editor