Vaccine trials - Openness is required to do justice

The urgent need for greater openness and accountability in the murky world of vaccine trials is borne out by today’s front page report showing the public was kept in the dark about a previously unknown trial carried out on Irish children during the 1960s.

Vaccine trials - Openness is required to do justice

That this trial has come to light underlines the importance of ongoing research in the controversial area of medical experiments on children. It also highlights the significance of, and the need for investigative journalism because pharmaceutical companies only come clean when confronted with the past.

Invariably, parents were not told their children were effectively being used as “human guinea pigs”. And, as seen in the controversy surrounding Church-run mother-and-baby homes, children are never informed about drug trials they were subjected to as babies or tiny toddlers.

Today’s Irish Examiner report reveals evidence of a previously unknown fifth vaccine trial carried out by Glaxo Laboratories on more than 30 young children here in the mid- 1960s. This is the first time specific references are made to Glaxo Laboratories. It comes in addition to four trials already known to have been conducted for the Wellcome Foundation, as stated by GlaxoSmithKline, in the 1960s and 1970s. The Wellcome Foundation is a Glaxo ‘heritage’ company.

That we know anything at all about the fifth trial by medical researchers is due to Michael Dwyer of UCC’s School of History. But for his detailed academic work, it would never have come to light that trials involving a measles vaccine were also carried out on 34 children in 1965.

Earlier this year, the historian’s work made headlines when he unearthed old medical records showing that scientists working for the drug company Burroughs Wellcome had secretly given diphtheria vaccines to more than 2,000 Irish children and babies in the 1930s. Significantly, he found no evidence of consent nor anything to show how many were affected by or had died in trials to combat the highly infectious respiratory illness. However, going on the evidence of a plethora of similar investigations, it seems probable that consent was not sought.

A reference to the 1965 trials was made in a report in the August edition of The Lancet which confirmed that the vaccines “were prepared by Glaxo Laboratories” and were trial tested on children aged between “eight months to about two years”. There was no mention of parental consent.

While The Lancet does not specify where the trials took place, whether at a children’s home or hospital, it records that “the reactions to the vaccines were all considered trivial by the adults looking after the children”. The reference to “adults looking after the children” will inevitably raise suspicions that the trial took place in an institutional setting.

Glaxo tell us if they had “evidence” that it was in a mother- and-baby home, they would have submitted it to the Laffoy Commission. But they add since it happened “many decades ago”, archived documentation was “limited”. With major questions unanswered, all the facts must be put on the table.

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