One of the events that prompted PATH and WHO to launch the Meningitis Vaccine Project 10 years ago, and which just started in earnest this week, was a massive African outbreak of this terrifying disease in 1996.
In the middle of Africa’s meningitis belt during that huge outbreak, drug maker Pfizer decided to test a new medication for its ability to protect against this bacterial infection. This was in the northern Nigerian city Kano.
This episode became a scandal, one that many have forgotten but now has been resurfaced by Wikileaks and reported by The Guardian:
The world’s biggest pharmaceutical company hired investigators to unearth evidence of corruption against the Nigerian attorney general in order to persuade him to drop legal action over a controversial drug trial involving children with meningitis, according to a leaked US embassy cable.
The clinical study, which Pfizer said did appear to reduce the death rate in the treated children (all children were treated, with the new drug and others with standard therapies), had been criticized by others such as Doctors Without Borders as “opportunistic” and unethical.
Nigerian officials investigated and eventually charged Pfizer with causing harm to the treated children, charges that have since been dropped.