Johns Hopkins lawsuit: Almost 800 sue after victims were unknowingly infected with syphilis in US Government experiment

John Hopkins denies it was involved in ‘reprehensible’ Guatemala study

Heather Saul
Friday 03 April 2015 08:20 BST
A medical professional holding a needle
A medical professional holding a needle (Lynne Cameron/PA Wire)

Almost 800 people have filed a $1 billion (£676 million) suit against the Johns Hopkins Hospital System Corp after hundreds were unwittingly infected with syphilis, gonorrhoea and other infections as part of study into sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) conducted by the US Government more than 65 years ago.

The former research subjects were infected in Guatemala as part of a study looking at ways of preventing STDs spreading. The law suit filed by the participants alleges that the university had "substantial influence" over the studies by controlling some panels that advised the federal government on how to spend research funds.

It claims that Johns Hopkins and the Rockefeller Foundation, which is also named as a defendant, “exercised control over, supervised, supported, encouraged, participated in and directed the course of the experiments”, according to the Associated Press.

Both Johns Hopkins and Rockefeller Foundation have said they denied paying for or conducting the study and accused lawyers for the plaintiff exploiting a “historic tragedy” for financial gain. John Hopkins said it will vigorously defend the suit.

Paul Bekman, one of the lawyers representing the participants and their families, said: "The people involved were icons at Johns Hopkins Hospital and the Rockefeller Foundation.

"They knew about it, they were architects of it, they planned it, they sought funding for it, they kept it under the radar. Hopkins provided syphilitic rabbits that were used to inject individuals with syphilis."

The suit alleges that experiments were carried out on women, soldiers and patients with mental health issues. The tests involved allowing participants to have sex with infected women or by using needles to open wounds that could be infected.

Children were also included in the study but not deliberately exposed to the diseases.

Some plaintiffs attempted to sue US government officials in 2011, but the case was thrown out on the basis that the Government could not be held accountable for what was committed in another country. It apologised to victims in 2010 for the “reprehensible research” conducted “under the guise of public health”.

Some plaintiffs attempted to sue US government officials in 2011, but the case was thrown out on the basis that the Government could not be held accountable for acts committed in another country.

In a statement, Johns Hopkins said: “Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala. No non-profit university or hospital has ever been held liable for a study conducted by the US Government.

“The plaintiffs’ essential claim in this case is that prominent Johns Hopkins faculty members’ participation on a government committee that reviewed funding applications was tantamount to conducting the research itself and that therefore Johns Hopkins should be held liable. Neither assertion is true.

“A class action lawsuit seeking to hold federal officials responsible for the Guatemala study has been filed and dismissed. US District Court Judge Reggie Walton dismissed that action in 2012 and stated that the pleas of victims for relief are more appropriately directed to the political branches of the federal government.

“For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the US Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy. Plaintiffs’ legal claims are not supported by the facts.

In a written statement, the Rockefeller Foundation called the research "morally repugnant," and said it agrees that the US government owes reparations to victims and their families. However, it says the foundation "did not design, fund, or manage any of these experiments, and had absolutely no knowledge of them," and will oppose the lawsuit.

Additional reporting by the Associated Press

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