Communist East Germany allowed Western drug companies to use its medical patients as unwitting guinea pigs for tests with untried pharmaceuticals in return for hundreds of thousands in hard currency, a television documentary by Germany’s ARD television channel has revealed.
The disturbing disclosures about the former communist state’s patients-for-cash scheme comes only weeks after an admission by the Swedish furniture giant Ikea that East German political prisoners were used to make its products before the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989.
The ARD documentary Tests and the Dead, which was aired for the first time this week, sheds light on other dubious practices East Germany resorted to in an attempt to sustain its failing economy.
The film reveals how Western pharmaceutical companies deliberately turned to cash-strapped Eastern Bloc countries in their search for human guinea pigs after the 1960s Thalidomide scandal which had suddenly obliged them to carry out rigorous tests on their products before they could be sold. In the West, the law stipulated that any patients taking part in drug tests had to be fully informed of the risks involved. However, in Communist East Germany such restrictions appear to have been waived in an increasingly desperate effort to procure enough hard currency to rescue an ailing economy and a crippled health system.
Using information gleaned from East German Stasi files, the film shows how, in 1983, Communist Party Central Committee members hatched a secret deal with Western drug companies enabling them to test their unlicensed products on unwitting patients by using specially selected doctors and clinics. Hubert Bruchmüller, a former East German who is now lives on a disability allowance because of a heart complaint, recalled in the film how he was used as an unwitting guinea pig. The documentary makers showed that without his knowledge, he had been given the drug Spirapril made by the pharmaceutical company Sandoz, while being treated for a heart complaint in a clinic in the East German city of Lotsau in the late 1980s.
Mr Bruchmüller described how the patient in the bed next to him suddenly died of a heart attack. “They just went ahead and did this, because they were told to do so,” he told the film makers. Six of the 17 patients in the Lotsau heart clinic died before doctors were ordered to stop testing according to Stasi file evidence unearthed by the film makers.
In another case, Annelise Lehrer, the widow of a former East German heart patient discovered that her husband Gerhard had been part of a batch of patients who were unwittingly subjected to testing for the blood pressure drug Ramipril, which was developed by the former Hoechst company in 1989.
Gerhard Lehrer died soon after his release from an East German hospital in 1989. His wife discovered that in keeping with Hoechst’s testing procedure, he had been part of a group which was given placebos and had received no treatment for his heart condition.
By 1988, East Germany was said to have signed a total of 165 contracts with Western companies for drug testing. The film makers said it had been impossible to put an exact figure on the amount earned, although studies suggested that Western companies had paid the equivalent of €430,000 (£350,000) to the Communist regime to test their products on the sick.
The makers of Tests and the Dead said they had identified the individuals who had organised drug tests for Hoechst in East Germany, but all of them had categorically refused to be interviewed. Only one former East German doctor was prepared to comment about his role as a drug tester and neither the pharmaceutical industry associations nor the ministries responsible said they had evidence about drug testing in the former East Germany.
Only the French pharmaceuticals giant Sanofi-Adventis, which is a successor company to Hoechst, allowed the film makers access to its files.