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Lawyers Get a Step Closer to Skeletons in Pfizer's Vaccine Closet

Lawyers took another step Friday toward figuring out what executives in Pfizer (PFE)'s New York headquarters knew about the company's disastrous Trovan meningitis vaccine trials in Nigeria in 1996, which led to the deaths of 11 children.

Pfizer management can be forgiven for wondering when, if ever, this case will go away. The company agreed to pay the 200 victims in the trial a share of $75 million in July 2009 but it's still fighting a federal court case in New York and a separate case in Nigeria.

Friday's motion and the court order it generated is significant because the full Trovan story has never been revealed. The case involves Pfizer's test of a meningitis drug on 200 children in Kano, Nigeria, in 1996. Pfizer failed to get proper consent for the trial. Eleven kids died and the drug was eventually nixed because it was too dangerous. The events may have inspired the book and film, The Constant Gardener. Pfizer has attempted to do the right thing in recent years by settling the case for $75 million, but it's been stymied by local bureaucracy and corruption.

How, exactly, Pfizer screwed up the Trovan trial has remained a mystery. As I understand it, the court order on Friday gives the plaintiffs -- family members of the victims -- the right to depose one unidentified Pfizer executive on the issue of where Pfizer's internal Trovan records are currently stored, which Pfizer executives might be witnesses, and where third parties that helped Pfizer with the trial might be located. Of special interest is whether any of that stuff is inside the company's HQ on New York's 42nd Street. The plaintiffs are hoping to prove that enough evidence exists in the U.S. -- witnesses, documents -- that a U.S. federal court is the appropriate jurisdiction for a trial. Pfizer said:

This is a procedural ruling and not a determination on the merits of this case. Pfizer has said all along that plaintiffs' claims should be litigated -- and indeed are being litigated -- in the Nigerian courts. As such, we look forward to the dismissal of this case in U.S. courts.
Although the ruling is a technical one, the plaintiffs believe it might open a door into a skeleton-filled Trovan closet at Pfizer. Here's what they're looking for:


An earlier federal court ruling hinted that Nigerian officials backdated approval forms for the trial, and that one of Pfizer's own doctors was against the trial taking place. That suspicious-but-not-probative piece of information has been hyped to ludicrous levels in Nigeria, where Trovan victims somehow believe they are now owed $342 billion.

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Image by Flickr user Julien Harneis, CC.