October 25, 2013
Supreme Court blasts the government for turning citizens into guinea pigs
This is an AHRC Statement.
It should not have taken a Supreme Court order for the Indian government to know that it cannot turn its citizenry into guinea pigs for private companies. This is one of the very basic duties, the raison d'être in fact, of a government bound to protect the lives and dignity of its citizens. Sadly, the Government of India cannot take recourse to the argument of ignorance or that it did not know. It has been well aware of the unethical practices adopted by the private interests as evidenced by the outrage over the death of seven girls in post-licensure clinical trials conducted on tribal girls in Khammam in Andhra Pradesh and Vadodara in Gujarat in 2010. The trials, jointly conducted by the Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and the state governments to test the efficacy of the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, were suspended after the uproar. The inquiry committee formed to look into the issue found serious violations of the ICMR guidelines, mostly over consent related issues, and yet chose not to fix any criminal culpability of those responsible on the pretext that there was no deliberate or planned attempt to cause damage to persons taking part in the trials.
Civil society and health activists have been warning for a long time that the Indian clinical trials industry has turned the country into a safe haven for drug trials on humans by multinational pharmaceutical companies. The government, however, seems to have no clue of this. A recent editorial in the Economics and Political Weekly, a reputed journal, exposes the gravity of the situation. It shows that the government itself admitted that the clinical trials have caused 2644 deaths across the country in a short span of seven years from 2005 to 2012. Civil society organizations like the Swasthya Adhikar Manch, a petitioner in this case, contest the figures as highly inaccurate, not in the least because they come from the same companies which conducted the trials. The absurdity of the data is betrayed, also, by the fact that in response to a right to information (RTI) petition the government admitted 2,061 clinical trial-related deaths between 2008 and 2011.
Worse still, the governments confessed that compensation was paid in just 22 of these cases. Can a government treat the lives of its citizenry worse than that; ensuring compensation to a mere 22 out of 2061 deaths as per its own admission? It could at least tighten the rules and guidelines that pharmaceutical companies violate at will. This was exposed, again, way back in 2011 by The Independent, a reputed British Daily. In an industry dominated by asymmetry of information making the doctor's word final, the investigation had found the law enforcers to be criminally lax in enforcing even the then guidelines, for example, private companies enlisted hundreds of tribal girls for a study without parental consent, the use by drug companies of survivors of the world's worst poisonous gas disaster without proper informed consent and tests carried out by doctors in the city of Indore.
They can enjoy this impunity not only because the 'peculiar situation' of India forces millions and millions of its starving citizens to take up whatever ways of making a little money that can get them and their family the next meal. They do this with impunity because of the corruption, evidenced by the Supreme Court blasting the government for nor tacking the 'menace 'of rackets of multinational companies, which let the guilty go scot free . The anguish of the Supreme Court on being shown merely the draft rules despite even the Parliamentary Committee having accepted the presence of such rackets is understandable. This is more so because the government had been letting the Drug Advisory Committees (NDACs) permitting drug trials in complete violation of an earlier order of the court that had put in place a new mechanism consisting of the new, technical committee and apex committee.
It is in this respect that the AHRC welcomes the honourable Supreme Court's decision of halting 157 drug trials with immediate effect. The need of the hour, in fact, is to go beyond this and put a complete moratorium of conducting such trials until a fully functional foolproof system of monitoring is put in place. The AHRC congratulates the Swasthya Adhikar Manch and other activists for their relentless struggle against the trails that dehumanize Indian citizens.