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Bristol Myers-Squibb and Others Can’t Dodge $1 Billion Lawsuit Over 1940s Syphilis Study, Judge Rules

A scanning electron microscopic (SEM) image of two Treponema pallidum bacteria, the germ responsible for syphilis. IMAGE: Gizmodo/Joyce Ayers/Centers for Disease Control

By Ed Cara | 7 January 2019

GIZMODO — For the time being, pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers-Squibb and others will not be allowed to avoid a billion-dollar civil lawsuit over their alleged roles in a U.S. government-led study in the 1940s that deliberately and secretly infected Guatemalan people with syphilis. Last week, Reuters reported, a federal Maryland judge struck down an argument by defense lawyers that domestic companies should be exempt from lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that allege human rights violations outside of the country.

In 2010, Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby uncovered the historical atrocity. She found that U.S. researchers conducted a series of unethical human experiments throughout the 1940s and 1950s on thousands of Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers, sex workers, and mental health patients, some of whom were young as 10. The experiments were carried at the behest of the U.S. government’s Public Health Service and with the approval of the Guatemalan government.

The overall purpose of the study was to test out whether antibiotics could be used to prevent syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections before its symptoms appeared in someone who was exposed to them. So the researchers initially recruited sex workers with syphilis to have sex with prisoners. Later on, they directly infected volunteers without their informed consent or knowledge of what was really happening. In many cases, though, infected people were left untreated. In total, 83 deaths were linked to the study, though it’s not entirely certain whether the infections were the direct cause (That said, late-stage syphilis is often fatal). […]

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