French ministers cover their tracks on infected blood

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The Independent Online
LAURENT FABIUS, the former French prime minister, and two of his ministers were called as witnesses yesterday in the trial of doctors accused of knowingly distributing HIV-contaminated blood products.

Mr Fabius, Georgina Dufoix, his social affairs minister, and Edmond Herve, the junior health minister in 1985, the period covered by the trial, were questioned on what they knew of the affair as members of the government.

The hearing was often stormy. After Mr Herve's testimony, one lawyer for civil plaintiffs shouted that he would be issuing a writ in the High Court on Monday against the three ministers alleging responsibility for health measures which resulted in about 1,200 haemophiliacs contracting the HIV virus. More than 250 have died.

The ministers were called after one of the four defendants, Professor Jacques Roux, 69, the former director-general of health, charged that the doctors on trial were scapegoats and that the politicians had ignored their medical advice.

Within sight of the Palais de Justice, red dye was poured into the Saint Michel fountain, making the water the colour of blood. Stencilled graffiti proclaimed 'Aids Killer State'. Demonstrators outside the courthouse shouted slogans which at times disrupted the proceedings.

The trial has been in process for five weeks and has turned into a marathon of buck-passing. Yesterday, both Mr Herve and Mrs Dufoix denied ever receiving letters of warning which senior doctors, including some of the defendants and witnesses, said they had sent.

Mrs Dufoix said she had never been directly informed that products distributed by the National Blood Transfusion Centre, headed by Michel Garretta, 48, the principal defendant, were contaminated. 'That doesn't mean I didn't know there was a danger,' she said. Mr Fabius, now the Socialist Party first secretary, took the stand late in the evening after his two ministers.

Mr Fabius said he had not been informed of the existence of heated products, although one of his advisers chaired a crucial meeting in May 1985 on blood products. Implicitly criticising the way parts of his administration had worked, he said: 'The protection of life should have gone before everything else.' At another point he said, 'Nobody can be exonerated, even those who acted as they should.'

The other defendants are Jean-Pierre Allain, 43, who was director of research at the centre and is now the professor of transfusion medicine at Cambridge University, and Robert Netter, 65, the former head of the public health laboratory. Dr Garretta and Professor Allain are charged under fraud articles for distributing dangerous products without warning. Dr Allain left the transfusion centre in the spring of 1985 after a dispute with Dr Garretta. The other two are charged with non-assistance to persons in danger. They all face prison terms.

They are accused of allowing haemophiliacs to use unscreened blood products for a few months in 1985 despite the existence of safe, heated products. The tribunal hearing the case has heard explanations indicating a greater interest in the transfusion service's commercial success than in the needs of its patients.

One defence lawyer questioned Mr Herve, who was a law lecturer before entering politics, on his qualifications to be health minister, asking him elementary questions about France's public health service, several of which he could not answer. 'This is inadmissible]' Mr Herve shouted.

Mr Herve's appearance was preceded by that of Claude Weisselberg, previously his technical adviser, who admitted not having given him some correspondence about the dangers. Mrs Dufoix said that in 1985, she had the impression that her ministry was 'taking serious decisions quickly', warning that the level of ignorance then may seem nave in the light of today's knowledge.

(Photograph omitted)