Fifteen years after the disastrous Pfizer Trovan test trail and after an out-of-court settlement reached last year, in which the US pharmaceutical firm agreed to pay $35 million as compensation, families of the 200 victims in Kano still have no respite. With only eight of the victims’ families compensated so far, controversy is currently trailing the disbursement of the fund set up for that purpose. Olaolu Olusina investigates how the Trovan Trust Fund was usurped by those who have no bearing with the saga, thus leaving the real victims in the dark as third parties smile to the banks, in what observers describe as a national disgrace
Alhaji Mustapha Mai Sikeli is currently, not a happy man. As chairman of the Trovan Victims Forum (TVF), the umbrella body of families and next-of-kin of victims of the 1996 Pfizer Trovan trial test which killed about 200 children in Kano, Mai Sikeli is disillusioned with both the American pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, and the Healthcare Meningitis Trust Fund, the body established by the Kano State Government to administer the compensation after the out-of-court settlement was reached with Pfizer.
His bitterness is understandable. While third parties who suffered nothing from the Trovan test saga are feeding fat on the out-of-court settlement reached with Pfizer, families of the victims are still groping in the dark, 15 years after. With a whopping $30 million already released to the Kano State Government and another $10 million gone to the lawyers representing the state government in the case instituted against Pfizer, the disbursement of the $35 million meant for the families of the victims is surrounded by controversy, as the victims and their lawyers appear to have been sidelined in the out-of-court settlement brokered by the government with Pfizer on the matter. Delays in settling the families of the victims, THISDAY learnt, arose from Pfizer’s insistence on DNA testing to ensure that the right people are compensated.
Origins of the Saga
A deadly meningitis epidemic had ravaged Nigeria in 1996. Described as the worst in the history of the country, the epidemic had claimed about 12,000 lives over a six-month period. The northern part of the country was mostly affected and health services were strained. Pfizer, under the guise of rendering humanitarian assistance in view of the epidemic, had joined other international relief agencies such as the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders.
It however used the opportunity to conduct a clinical test of its newly-developed anti-meningitis drug, Trovan, on children in Kano, and this proved fatal, resulting in the death of 100 of them and causing varying degrees of injuries and deformities in 100 others. The most worrisome aspect was that Pfizer even got an import duty waiver for the drug, just as the approval letter for the test was allegedly forged by an official of the Kano State Ministry of Health.
To boot, an American doctor working with Pfizer, Dr. Juan Walterspiel, who was aware of the unethical conduct of the pharmaceutical firm and exposed its antics, was fired by Pfizer.
Though Pfizer denied that the deaths were as a result of the clinical test of its new drug, families of the victims dragged the pharmaceutical firm to court in the United States of America with legal suits initiated in New York and Connecticut. Despite the initial challenges of the legal battle, the New York Division of the US Court of Appeal, in what had become a landmark judgment in January 2009, ruled that Pfizer could be sued in the US.
In spite of the fact that cases had been pending since 2001 and 2002, THISDAY gathered that the Kano State Government and the federal government, acting on the advice of some smart lawyers bent on making money out of the situation, decided to slam a criminal case against Pfizer. And in a rare display of government strength, Kano sued for $2 billion while the federal government sued for $6 billion in Nigeria. This, it was learnt, was done at a time the victims already had cases pending against Pfizer in the US with the victims represented by their lawyers.
Mediation and Settlement
Against the threat of being stopped from doing business in Nigeria, Pfizer was left with no option than to settle out of court. It therefore engaged the services of former military Head of State, General Yakubu Gowon, to mediate on its behalf in order to broker a deal with the government. But the deal that was brokered by Gowon after several meetings in London and Dubai disappointingly put the value of every Nigerian child killed or deformed by the tests at $175,000. At the end of negotiations, Pfizer settled for a $75 million compensation deal.
Leading the Kano government delegation was former state attorney general, Barrister Aliyu Umar, while the federal government was represented by former attorney general, Mr. Michael Aondoakaa, as leader of its team. In the final settlement, Pfizer agreed to pay $35 million as compensation to the families of the 200 children, with each family receiving $175,000. It also agreed to pay $30 million to the Kano State Government towards the construction of a health facility, while another $10 million was to be paid to the legal team representing Kano state for their services. THISDAY further learnt that a secret settlement deal was also reached between Pfizer and the federal government for an undisclosed amount.
In January 2009, a Healthcare Meningitis Trust Fund was jointly established by Pfizer and the Kano State Government to manage the disbursement of the compensation. Chaired by Justice Abubakar Bashir Wali, the board of the Trust Fund is made up of three appointees of the state government and another three appointed by Pfizer, with Pfizer allegedly paying all the bills of the fund.
With a modest office complex as its secretariat in Kano, THISDAY reliably gathered that each member of the board of the Trust Fund receives a whopping N400,000 as sitting allowances while those who suffered from the test are dying gradually. In the same vein, the government lawyers have received their fees and smiling all the way to the bank while construction work on the state-of-the-art paedriatric medical facility in Kano is nearing completion.
The Medical Centre
Immediate past governor of the state, Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau, late last year performed the foundation laying ceremony of the medical centre that has the potential of becoming the largest paediatric centre in West Africa.
At the foundation laying ceremony in Kano, chairman of the Kano/Pfizer Healthcare Programs Trust Board, Professor Shehu Galadanci, put the cost of the medical facility at N 3.825 billion. He explained that the 200-bed facility will also have a fully equipped microbiology laboratory for the research and management of contagious conditions that often result in serious outbreak of cholera and meningitis. He said, when completed, the medical centre will have a state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment for the diagnosis and treatment of many conditions, including cancer and serious life threatening infectious diseases that are presently treated only overseas.
The chairman stressed that the people of Kano will now have the benefit of access to modern treatment facilities within their reach of the people and noted that the contracts were awarded after a thorough tender process that is in line with international standards, adding that the project will be completed in August 2011. When THISDAY visited the centre at Kwanar Dawaki, work on the project site situated at Dawakin Kudu was in progress and construction of some of the structures was nearing completion.
But there are fears that the project may suffer a setback going by the utterances of the state governor, Alhaji Rabiu Musa Kwankwaso, who faulted the choice of the site of the project that was originally meant to serve as an international cattle market. Kwankwaso has said although the hospital project initiated by Pfizer as part of compensation for the controversial Trovan test is a good one, it was “politically situated” at Kwanar Dawaki, which is on the outskirts of Kano city. “The selection of the site was very political; the site was for our cattle market. One cannot not understand why the hospital was sited there. It is a very good project in a very wrong place,” he had stressed.
He had pointed out that he had promised during his campaign tour that the market must stand because of the investment made in the project during his first tenure between 1999 and 2003. While promising to visit the site to see the level of execution of the hospital project after which a decision would be reached on where to relocate the cattle market, he said he will give it prompt attention, adding, “We don’t want issues like this to be left hanging, so we would resolve this.”
On compensation to the Trovan test victims, the governor advised that action be expedited in paying them, pointing out that they ought to have received compensation first before other claimants were settled from the monies paid by Pfizer. The governor, who regretted that the Pfizer tests were a sad development in the history of the state, said he was pleased that “the action taken by all concerned was positive now that Pfizer has to pay huge sums to the victims as compensation.”
Breach of Agreement
But despite the huge amount pledged by Pfizer as compensation, the victims of the clinical trial whose predicament led to the court cases still languish in penury with some of them dying one after the other. Mai Sikeli’s association, TVF, represents 192 out of the 200 test victims of the 1996 clinical test. So far, no member of his association has been paid any compensation as they wait endlessly for the results of the DNA tests.
Out of frustration, they made a move last March through their lawyers to stop the Trust Fund and Pfizer from going ahead with the DNA tests, saying the entire exercise was shrouded in secrecy and could no longer be trusted. Their grouse was that the DNA tests being conducted consequent upon which compensation would be paid were taking too long. They also alleged that Pfizer had breached most of the agreements reached with the victims.
THISDAY gathered that whereas the world is being told that Pfizer is paying $175,000 per victim, only four people had been paid $175,000 each while others received between $10,000 and $80,000. In a letter dated May 15 2010 from A.A. Mu’Allimu & Co., counsel to the Trust Fund, a copy of which was obtained by THISDAY, the fund solicited the cooperation and patience of the TVF and its lawyers in the process that was adopted for the compensations, especially the DNA tests. The letter signed by Mr. Auwal Abubakar Muallimu also called for understanding in the payment formula for victims who suffered injuries or deformity as they were to receive between $10,000 and $80,000 instead of the $175,000 per victim, whether living or dead, by Pfizer.
But in a petition to the pharmaceutical company, a copy of which was obtained by THISDAY in Kano, Mai Sikeli alleged that Pfizer had breached most of the agreements reached with the victims and demanded to know the rationale behind the delay in releasing the results of the DNA samples of members of his group which were taken in March 2011, as they were told results would be out after six months.
“Neither Pfizer nor the Pfizer Meningitis Trust has said anything about the exercise since then, which suggests that a hidden agenda between the two parties is unfolding in the compensation process,” he alleged. The TVF chairman also wondered why both Pfizer and the Trust Fund were only emphasising the DNA tests, ignoring other vital data such as the claimant’s initials, date of birth, gender and photographs of the victims in the compensation process.
According to TVF members, Pfizer had in the past claimed to have extracted fluid samples from each Trovan participant from where the DNA records could be obtained, but alleged that the drug company took away the fluid samples to its headquarters in the US.
They are therefore querying if Pfizer complied with the provisions of the Nigerian Customs and Excise Act at the time of exporting the fluids and if it had also complied with the provisions of the Food and Drug Administration of the United States before importing and preserving the fluids in the US for a very long time.
They also have expressed reservations in the manner the Trust Fund was trying to hand pick six victims out of the 192 members of association for compensation without processing their DNA test results. “If the board of the Trust Fund argued that the six victims were considered based on documentary evidence, how did they arrive at clearing them without possessing 192 DNA results from Pfizer,” they queried.
They also want to know why Pfizer was so willing to spend several millions of dollars on various aspects of the 1992 Trovan drug saga and remained reluctant to use a fraction of the money to settle its victims. They are also asking why various third parties are benefitting from the compensation process at the expense of the real victims.
“The whole arrangement is fraudulent. The victims themselves who were used as guinea pigs are being paid less than the $175,000 each as stipulated in the agreement. Pfizer is cutting corners and saving money as the shortfall in payment goes back to them. The compensation ratio is not equitable,” a lawyer conversant with the case told this reporter.
The lawyer, who craved anonymity, also doubted whether there was any DNA kept anywhere. “If you have DNA results, how do we know it’s not been tampered with or has not been swapped? Pfizer chose the laboratory and said it was in possession of the samples. What is holding the company from releasing the results and how are we sure that the samples have not been tampered with. This is all fraud. Where was the Federal Ministry of Health in all this? Nobody is asking any questions since money has changed hands. Kano government itself had sold out its citizens for a plate of porridge. The case is a national disgrace,” this reporter was told.
But in a new twist to the saga, a civil society group, Proletarian Agenda, recently slammed the TVF, accusing it of blackmail over reports that the victims may be heading back to court. National Coordinator of the Proletariat Agenda, Mallam Umar Sani, in a statement, noted that TVF’s cases had been settled out of court before their members agreed to subject themselves to DNA tests, stating, “Indeed, the TVF was responsible for the delays in the DNA process because the body obtained a court injunction to stop it.”
Sani also accused the 192 members of the TVF of receiving $5,000 each before they agreed to withdraw their cases from court. “Now, with the rumour that only six out of the 192 TVF members were DNA-matched with actual participants in the Trovan study, the other pretenders and impostors are being egged on by their greedy sponsors to muddy the waters all over again by casting aspersions on the scientific DNA process and are threatening to go back to court,” he said.
TVF chairman, Mai Sikeli, declined to comment on the issues raised when this reporter contacted him, saying he would only comment with the permission of his association’s lawyers. However speaking with THISDAY on the charges made by the Proletarian Agenda, a member of the TVF who craved anonymity, said it was true that the members were paid the $5,000, maintaining that it was part of the agreement for withdrawing the initial suit and was supposed to be payment to ‘alleviate suffering’ after their perseverance over the last 15 years.
“It was not a secret payment as is being insinuated and is not part of the compensation of $175,000. Without any form of assistance for 15 years while others were feeding fat on our predicament, we trudged along. So the money was supposed to provide us some relief,” THISDAY was informed.
In a statement after the first payments were made to families of four victims in August, Pfizer had stated, “This is the first step in a multi-phase review process by which the independent board of trustees that manages the fund will deliver payment to all other qualified claimants. We thank them for their commitment and dedication to seeing this process through in the most timely and transparent way possible.”
Chairman of the Trust Fund, Justice Wali, could not be reached at the time of filing this report as his phone was switched off. Kano State Commissioner for Information, Professor Umar Farouk, also declined comment when contacted by THISDAY. So also did the spokesman of former governor of the state, Alhaji Sule Yau Sule, who said he could not say anything as he was out of the country.
But former Kano State attorney general, Umar, who led the Kano government delegation to sign the agreement with Pfizer told THISDAY that though he participated in signing the agreement, there was no way he could influence the work of the committee set up to implement it.
“There is an independent board set up to do the job. It is made up of three representatives of Kano State Government and three others representing Pfizer. But they are independent of both the government and Pfizer. Now, they have set up requirements to be met for compensation to be made. If any of the claimants feels aggrieved by the decisions of the board, such a claimant is free to seek arbitration,” Umar told this reporter.
Additional reports from Ibrahim Shuaibu in Kano