Claim: LeCarre's "The Constant Gardener" Was Based on Pfizer Trovan Case

Last Updated Feb 17, 2009 9:39 PM EST

The Connecticut Law Tribune claims that The Constant Gardener, a John Le Carré book and later a movie with the same name, is in fact based on the Pfizer Trovan case. But is the claim true? A look at the timeline of both the case and the book suggest it is possible ... as long as Le Carré is a very fast writer.

While many have drawn parallels between the two -- the movie and the lawsuit both posit an unscrupulous drug company doing fatal drug testing on African children and then trying to cover it up -- this is the first report to BNET's knowledge that directly asserts that The Constant Gardner is essentially a rewrite of Pfizer's ill-fated meningitis drug tests in Nigeria. The story provides no sourcing for its claim, just a bald assertion. The Conn. Law Trib.:

West Haven, Conn., attorney Richard Altschuler has reams of paper and endless boxes of notes that tell the story. Medical experiments on children. Claims that a large American pharmaceutical company exploited a third world country.

Sounds like the plot of a novel? It was. The book is called "The Constant Gardener." A movie of the same name followed in 2005.

But the thing is, both were based on reality, on a case that Altschuler has been fighting for eight years against Pfizer Inc.

Altschuler won an important ruling in February allowing 88 Nigerian families to pursue their claims against Pfizer in US courts. (Back story: In 1996, during a meningitis outbreak in Nigeria, Pfizer tested a drug, Trovan, on children there. About 11 kids died. The Washington Post: "Trovan was never approved for use by American children. The Food and Drug Administration approved it for adults in 1998 but later severely restricted its use after reports of liver failure. The European Union banned the drug in 1999.")

While the Constant Gardener has often been discussed in the same breath as Trovan, Le Carré has previously denied that his book and the case draw from the same source. Big Pharma's enfant terrible, Marcia Angell, reviewed the tome in the NY Review of Books and said this:

-- in the real world, we don't hear of pharmaceutical whistle-blowers being murdered, and there have been several whistle-blowers recently.

But le Carré himself cautions us against drawing any such conclusions. In an author's note at the end of the book he makes a grudging disclaimer to the effect that no person or organization in the book is based on an actual person or organization. He also makes it clear, however, that he is obliged to say this "in these dog days when lawyers rule the universe." He adds, "But I can tell you this. As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realize that, by comparison with reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard."

During the making of the movie, a copy of a documentary, "Dying for Drugs," that was made for the UK's Channel 4 in 2003, was given to the Constant Gardener cast. The documentary was about the Trovan case:
Director [of "Dying for Drugs"] Brian Woods met John Le Carré and Fernando Mereilles during production of "The Constant Gardener" in 2005, and copies of the film were distributed to members of the cast.
This all suggests that Le Carré's book, the movie, and the Trovan case were on parallel tracks for some time. However, Le Carré 's book was published in 2001, two years before the Channel 4 documentary. The obvious question here is, did Le Carré read about the case between 1996 and the time he finished writing?

He could have, but the timeline is a tight squeeze. Trovan's Nigerian trials first made headlines in the Western press in 2000, when the Washington Post published a December investigation of the Nigerian trials. Here's the text of a Pfizer press release from the time, which, unfortunately, is the only evidence I could gather that isn't behind a pay wall. In both Lexis-Nexis and Factiva, the WaPo story on Trovan is the first mention in the media of a controversy in Nigeria.

In order for Le Carré to have based his book on the Trovan case, he would either have had to have inside knowledge of what was going on in Nigeria at the time (not implausible for a man of Le Carre's social standing and background as an MI5 employee), or he would have had to read the Washington Post article and then bash out his novel very quickly. Or both.