By Elaine Loughlin, Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Noel Baker
A full commission of investigation into the cervical cancer scandal is to be established in September, Health Minister Simon Harris has confirmed.
It came as Vicky Phelan revealed there has been “significant” shrinking of her tumours after just three treatments of the drug pembrolizumab through a clinical trial.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar also suggested up to 200 more women could be affected by the cervical cancer tests scandal after it was revealed the number of women taking legal action has surged to 46 since the crisis emerged.
Speaking to reporters in Madrid, Mr Varadkar said: “I don’t want to speculate on that number yet but it will be obviously more than zero but probably less than 100, less than 200.”
Mr Harris said a commission of investigation will go ahead from the autumn, while the scoping inquiring being carried out by Dr Gabriel Scally would continue throughout the summer months.
“I am concerned that there seems to be a view that there may be a commission or there won’t be a commission, let me be very clear there will be a commission of inquiry and I would like to set that inquiry up in September,” said Mr Harris.
“I believe that a commission of investigation is needed to get to the bottom of many of the issues, particular issues in relation to accountability, who knew what where and when. That’s not Dr Scally’s job and Dr Scally is very clear on that.”
However, Mr Harris said setting up a commission immediately, as called for by members of the opposition, would not be right.
“If you just threw everything into a commission now, I think there is a legitimate concern that that would go on and on,” he said.
The news came as cervical cancer patient Ms Phelan revealed that there has been “significant” shrinking of her cancer tumours after just three treatments of the drug pembrolizumab through a clinical trial.
The drug, which she has been taking under its trade name Keytruda, prompted her oncologist to describe the development as “absolutely fantastic news”.
She also told RTE’s Ray D’Arcy Show that her doctor had said: “You don’t realise how big this is for cancer and for cancer patients.”
In May 2016, pembrolizumab, alongside another drug, nivolumab, was at the centre of controversy when oncologists criticised delays in funding the treatments here, amid a row between the HSE and the drug manufacturers over the cost of the treatment.
On the current scoping exercise, Ms Phelan said: “I am a little frustrated at the moment, I thought we would be further along at this stage.”
It has also emerged that at least 46 women are taking legal action against the State over botched cancer screening tests.
The figures from the State Claims Agency director Ciaran Breen were revealed as a HSE official predicted the 209 women already known to be affected by the cervical cancer crisis will rise significantly over the coming months.
Speaking during a four-hour meeting with the Dáil Public Accounts Committee, Mr Breen said before Ms Phelan’s High Court case in mid-April, 11 women were in the process of taking cases against the State.
In the weeks that have followed, that figure has surged to at least 46, with a number of other cases expected.
Mr Breen said that according to the latest figures, five women are taking cases against Cervical Check, including one case — Ms Phelan’s — which has been settled.
Against the backdrop of the CervicalCheck scandal, latest figures from the National Treatment Purchase Fund show almost 28,000 women are on gynaecology waiting lists, of whom in excess of 5,000 are waiting more than a year.
Inevitably some of these women will have undiagnosed malignancies.
They have yet to receive a first appointment at a consultant’s clinic.