Doctors 'used as scapegoats' in tainted-blood case

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The Independent Online
Lawyers for the main defendant in the trial over HIV-tainted blood in France asked for his acquittal yesterday, saying he was a scapegoat and that the fraud charges he faced could not be applied to blood products. Francois- Xavier Charvet, a lawyer for Michael Garretta, the former head of the National Blood Transfusion Centre, said: 'Public opinion wanted a head and it has been served up.' The prosecutor, saying there were no extenuating circumstances in Dr Garretta's favour, had earlier asked for the maximum four-year prison sentence and a 500,000-franc ( pounds 50,000) fine.

The hearing, in which four top doctors were defendants, ended yesterday, and verdicts will be announced in October. The case covers six months in 1985 when, although heated blood products were known to be safe, doctors continued to distribute unheated products that they knew were contaminated so as not to destroy expensive stocks.

About 1,200 French haemophiliacs became infected with the HIV virus in the early 1980s and more than 250 have died after contracting Aids. The trial, which lasted nearly seven weeks, was often wrenching as HIV-contaminated haemophiliacs cried out their anger against a medical profession in which they once placed all their trust.

Mr Charvet argued that the 1905 fraud law under which Dr Garretta and Jean-Pierre Allain, another defendant, were charged was inapplicable since it was intended to guard against defective food products. Blood products in France are now covered by legislation similar to that applying to medicines.

Lawyers for all four doctors said they were scapegoats in a case which questioned the responsibility of a large number of the French medical profession as well as of government ministries which failed to heed warnings. The prosecutor herself said there could have been 100 people in the box but the four had been chosen because, in the positions they occupied seven years ago, they could have sounded the alarm.

The defence for Dr Allain, who was the transfusion centre's research director and is now professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge, said his position meant that he played no part in distribution. Olivier Schnerb, one of Dr Allain's lawyers, produced a letter Dr Allain had written in January 1985, three months before the period covered by the trial, telling Dr Garretta and another senior member of the centre's management that stocks were contaminated and pointing out that the transfusion service would be responsible. A subsequent meeting of the centre's board of directors was dominated by Dr Garretta's successful efforts to take control and rid the board of a rival, Mr Schnerb said.

He said Dr Allain had tried to alert the press but had not been believed. One journalist decided not to follow up the story after checking it with Dr Garretta. The prosecution has asked for a four- year suspended prison term for Dr Allain with a 100,000-franc fine.

A lawyer for Robert Netter, the former head of the National Health Laboratory, showed 1985 television interviews with prominent doctors to display the level of ignorance about Aids at the time. They talked about 'safe carriers' of the virus and minimised the dangers. The prosecution asked for a two-year suspended sentence for Dr Netter and a four-year suspended sentence for Professor Jacques Roux, the former director general of public health, both of whom are charged with non-assistance to persons in danger.