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Tests and the Dead
December 5, 2012 4:22 PM   Subscribe

A recent German television documentary, Tests and the Dead, has revealed that, between 1983 and 1989, the East German government sold its citizens to Western pharmaceutical companies for research, with firms such as Hoechst and Sandoz having paid the cash-strapped dictatorship as much as €430,000 for the ability to test experimental drugs on selected patients in special clinics. The patients were not informed of the tests, and at least several have died as a result of their treatment.
posted by acb (21 comments total) 15 users marked this as a favorite

 
Which makes one wonder: what are the odds that the big drug companies today have a similar deal with, say, North Korea or some other dictatorship? A few million dollars one way, some valuable scientific data the other, and a few serfs lose their lives to keep caviar on Kim Jong-Un's table...
posted by acb at 4:24 PM on December 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes ---Mark Twain
posted by Renoroc at 4:31 PM on December 5, 2012 [9 favorites]


"what are the odds that the big drug companies today have a similar deal with, say, North Korea or some other dictatorship?"

I just finished reading a book about ordinary life in North Korea called "Nothing to Envy" by Barbara Demick. While I wouldn't put it past the Kim thugocracy to do something like that, I would also question the validity of data that were obtained through testing on the chronically malnourished. The book describes how people would get shiny rings around their eyes because of lack of Niacin, and how one of the telltale signs of malnutrition is a head that is disproportionately large on top of a petite body (because the body stops feeding the brain last). The average North Korean is 5-6 inches shorter than the average South Korean.
posted by dfm500 at 4:42 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


Can't say I'm a bit surprised.... this was the same loving, caring East German government that gave their female atheletes male hormones, in an effort to win as many atheletic prizes as they possibly could, including at various Olympics --- they lied to those female atheletes, too: told them it was "vitamin shots".
posted by easily confused at 4:44 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


That is horrible.

The article is very thin on any evidence, and only sort of names 2 companies while repeatedly using the same Western Drug Companies line.

With all of the not-founded-in-reality Anti-Science & Big Pharma rhetoric that's been trending up over the last few years, I wish there was a more thorough exploration of specifics, evidence, and especially context (the comment above about East German treatment of female athletes being a great example) to the article.

Otherwise I fear the real tragedy, lessons, and impact this story could impart will be drowned out in a cacophony of gleeful anti-vaxxers adding another talking point to their Shit On Everything Science-y file.

Gonna think about this one for a while. It really is just horrible.
posted by lazaruslong at 4:57 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


I find it interesting that a capitalist institution chose to rely on a socialist country to do its dirtiest work. The combination of capitalist incentives and socialist state control seems to be a perfect duo for ruthless efficiency.

That is exactly the combination that seems to define modern China, so I think it's safe to assume that similar things are going on there, probably on a much grander scale.
posted by andrewpcone at 5:02 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


If the evidence does measure up, can we expect prosecutions on both sides (both the DDR officials who organised the scheme and the pharmaceutical firm executives who signed off on them), or would a statute of limitations have expired? (I'm guessing this counts as a crime against humanity.)
posted by acb at 5:04 PM on December 5, 2012


With all of the not-founded-in-reality Anti-Science & Big Pharma rhetoric that's been trending up over the last few years, I wish there was a more thorough exploration of specifics, evidence, and especially context (the comment above about East German treatment of female athletes being a great example) to the article.

Seems reasonable to me, and I'm hardly anti-science (in fact, I make a living at it). IKEA not too recently admitted using East German slave labor to build products to sell to the West. The DDR government was pretty shitty to its people, and it loved taking hard currency from visitors coming over the border. Hell, people were horrible to each other, most being compelled to spy on each other for the Stazi.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 5:41 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


These days Big Pharma tests drugs in the third world. I used to work in a place where we sold software to support trials, we had to handle many Indian languages. It most certainly goes on.

Big Pharma is, overall, a very good thing. But some of their current practices are really problematic. It's interesting to find that they were actually using East Germany as some accounts of Big Pharma say they have gotten worse since the drive for big profits has increased from the 1980s onward.

Bad Pharma, the new book by Ben Goldacre and The Truth about The Drug Companies by Marcia Angell, a former editor of the NEJM are well worth reading for providing solid criticism of the current practices of Big Pharma.
posted by sien at 6:03 PM on December 5, 2012 [5 favorites]


Small factoid. I spent quite some work time 15 or so years ago in one of the buildings used for some animal testing in Basel (you can figure out the company yourself). The building spanned the Swiss / France border and was intentionally outside the main campus and security perimeter of the rest of the headquarters.

Some trials and research would move from one side of the facility to the other depending on the current state of legislation over the years. All the human exits to the facility were within Switzerland, but there were some delivery platforms in the EU. Oddly, the parking lot was technically within France even though there were no exits in that direction. It's possible it's all changed by now.

Pharmaceutical companies will take advantage of variances in legislation and regulation to complete drug development. But they won't put a study at risk of being accepted by the major regulatory agencies (FDA, EMEA, etc) if the study isn't done in a fashion acceptable by those agencies. Normally through reciprocity agreements and joint inspections.
posted by michswiss at 6:18 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


The article is very thin on any evidence, and only sort of names 2 companies while repeatedly using the same Western Drug Companies line.

Perhaps further investigation will bayer up under scrutiny.
posted by hal9k at 6:34 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


sien, I've been meaning to read Goldacre's new book for sure, thanks for the reminder and the new recommendation.
posted by lazaruslong at 6:47 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


It would seem that the old (pre-2002) BGB § 198 applies here, so 30 years from the fact, regardless of knowledge. Since it started in 1983, that would mean that an action starting soon would not be prescribed.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 6:49 PM on December 5, 2012


History doesn't repeat itself, but it often rhymes ---Mark Twain

On the other hand, fabricated aphorisms' misattribution to Twain can be repeated endlessly.
posted by RogerB at 7:20 PM on December 5, 2012 [3 favorites]


Not at all surprised at something like this. The DDR really had pretty much nothing else to sell except its citizens. Here's a case in point: back when I was touring Europe a lot (mid 80s to mid 90s) there was a guy in Berlin who organized gigs for a band I was in. He lived in West Berlin, and had met his girlfriend on one of his trips to East Berlin. He eventually "bought" her out of East Germany for something like 70,000 dollars. The government needed hard currency and they needed it bad. They'd sell people, plain and simple.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:09 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


The documentary, though I suppose most people who can understand German could find it themselves. It appears the ARD is on a DDR kick at the moment.
posted by hoyland at 10:00 PM on December 5, 2012


Jesus Christ. Is there any industry less moral than the pharmaceutical industry? At least arms dealers don't pretend to be out for the public good.
posted by latkes at 10:03 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]


lazaruslong - I don't think I'm alone in being pro-science and anti-capitalism. The profit motive and medicine are most unsuitable bedfellows.
posted by latkes at 10:06 PM on December 5, 2012 [4 favorites]


Gaming industry, maybe.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:07 PM on December 5, 2012


latkes: "lazaruslong - I don't think I'm alone in being pro-science and anti-capitalism. The profit motive and medicine are most unsuitable bedfellows."

It's a good point, I hear you there. I've chewed on that one for a while, and I'm not sure I completely agree.

Are they really most unsuitable bedfellows? I mean, if the basic critique you are suggesting there is that capitalism & profit motive = inevitable disregard for anything but the profit motive including health and human safety, then I guess yeah. That's true for basically everything then, not just medicine. Kind of a non-starter, really.

I don't know. I tend to think that profit motive in sciences is generally a Good Thing in some specific ways. Science doesn't happen in a vacuum, and having a team of company-hired people researching how to make a better skin cream to make money with might lead to the bolstering of research in areas that benefit the public good. Spin-off technologies and all that. Medicinal research, really any advanced practical research of worth, is also pretty damn expensive. Would many of the best scientists and laboratories that have produced huge benefits to medicine have been built or trained if there was no money?

I guess what I'm saying is, I don't think that our medicine as a species would be as advanced as it is now, nor have ever been funded to the scope that it took to produce awesome drugs, were it not for the profit-motive of companies. I'm about as lefty as it comes and I'm all for a good rap on the knuckles of the invisible hand, but it just seems unlikely.
posted by lazaruslong at 3:20 PM on December 6, 2012


No commies to purchase? S'cool, just use the general (capitalist) population while profiting at the same time.
posted by telstar at 6:02 PM on December 6, 2012


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