Octogenarian ordered to court over drugs scandal

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The Independent Online

A slimming drug blamed for the deaths of as many as 2,000 people in France should have been banned more than a decade ago, according to a report by the country's health inspectorate.

The octogenarian founder of a French pharmaceutical company, accused of covering up the dangers of the drug, Mediator, has been ordered to appear in court next month to face accusations of "acute deceit" in a class-action lawsuit brought by alleged victims and their relatives.

French politicians of both right and left also face deep embarrassment, and possible legal recriminations, in what could become the worst health scandal in the country's history. The Socialist presidential candidate, Ségolène Royal has labelled the affair the "crime of the century".

An official report has blasted successive health ministers and the French medical watchdog, Afssaps, for showing an "incomprehensible tolerance" towards the drug over at least 10 years, despite evidence that it was at best useless and at worst extremely dangerous. The medical watchdog repeatedly "failed in its duties," the report said.

The Inspection Générale des Affaires Sociales (IGAS) also accused the Servier company of "anaesthetising" and "pulling the wool over the eyes of" government officials and health professionals by repeatedly making misleading claims about the drug.

The company's founder, Jacques Servier, 88, has been ordered to appear before a court in Nanterre west of Paris next month to answer questions from judges examining one of two class- action lawsuits.

Mediator should have been banned in 1999, the report said, but was approved, and subsidised, by successive health ministers for another decade. According to earlier investigations, at least 500 French people – and possible as many as 2,000 – died from heart valve failures after taking the drug over a period of 33 years.

Despite repeated warnings from scientists in France and abroad, Mediator was prescribed to five million French people, originally to fight diabetes and later as an appetite-suppressing slimming pill. Servier, the second largest French drugs company, was founded 50 years ago by Mr Servier, a French doctor, who is known for his cult of secrecy and his excellent relations with French politicians.

Mediator contains a substance called benfluorex, which has been found by a series of scientific investigations to damage the valves of the heart. Approval was finally withdrawn after the publication of a study in April 2009 by a Breton lung specialist, Irene Frachon, that linked Mediator to scores of patients with otherwise unexplained heart complaints.

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