Doctors jailed in HIV-blood trial

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The Independent Online
A FRENCH court sentenced a Cambridge professor and the former head of the Paris blood transfusion service to prison terms yesterday for knowingly allowing the distribution of HIV-infected products.

Michel Garretta, who was head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre, was not in court to hear the sentence of four years and a 500,000 franc (pounds 60,000) fine, the maximum. Francois-Xavier Charvet, his lawyer, said he was in the United States but would return shortly to respond to an arrest warrant included in the judgment.

Jean-Pierre Allain, who is professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge, was given two years with another two years suspended. This sentence was unexpectedly harsh since the prosecution had asked for only a suspended four- year sentence and a fine.

Allain was director of research at the Paris centre in 1985 when the blood products were distributed to haemophiliacs. He remains at liberty, pending an appeal, which will probably take about eight months. Both he and Garretta were charged with fraud for using products they knew to be defective.

Jacques Roux, the former head of public health, got a suspended four-year sentence for non-assistance to persons in danger. Robert Netter, the head of the National Health Laboratory, was acquitted on the same charge.

The four judges in the Paris tribunal took more than two months to reach their verdict. Some 250 French haemophiliacs have died of Aids and another 1,200 are HIV-positive, although in most cases it is impossible to determine which of them were infected during the time covered by the trial.

Families of the victims immediately protested that the sentences were too light. One lawyer said the trial was only the first step and that the families would push for politicians to be tried too, a request rejected by the French parliament earlier this month. Laurent Fabius, the prime minister of the time, Georgina Dufoix, his social affairs minister, and Edmond Herve, his health minister, all gave evidence in the trial.

In essence, the defendants were accused of allowing the distribution of unheated, contaminated blood concentrates for six months in 1985, although safe, heated products were available. The concentrates allowed haemophiliacs to treat themselves at home by injection. Mixed from thousands of blood donations, it took only one contaminated sample to taint them.

Documents produced in evidence showed that the transfusion centre, which was in charge of all French transfusion policy and imports, favoured using up stocks for financial reasons. The prosecutor said in her summing-up in July that the doctors had treated people 'as clients rather than patients, like shopkeepers'. She also said that up to 100 defendants could have been in the dock and the four had been chosen because of their positions of responsibility.

In his defence, Garretta said he believed US companies were pushing heated products for commercial reasons only.

The trial produced an unhappy picture of doctors acting for commercial reasons, civil servants not passing on information to ministers in time, and ministers too weak to take decisive action.

It was the second time that Garretta had failed to appear in recent weeks. Last month, the French doctors' professional board met to decide whether he should be banned from practising. Only his lawyers attended that hearing and they walked out shortly after it started. The board did not rule.

(Photograph omitted)