This story is part of our Lawyer Stories series which shares vignettes of one’s high and low (and sometimes even funny) moments in the legal profession. Read on.
Perhaps they called before they came. Maybe there was no answer. This was in 1984. They would have gotten in a car and showed up at the house, knocked at the door, and waited. I suppose they were anxious. They had bad news. The blood medicine you need for your child to live a normal life, the one you’ve been using on your little boy for years? It may be infected.
It was Factor VIII concentrate, a blood-based medicine used to treat hemophilia. Each dose contained plasma from the blood of thousands of donors. Paid donors. We have reason to believe that one of those donors may have been infected with HIV. They would have gone inside, gone to the refrigerator, and taken the medicine out. They would have followed strict protocols for safe handling, and they would have returned that potentially deadly little package to the pharmaceutical company that manufactured it.
Perhaps that little boy lived, though thousands of Americans with that same disease did not. I suspect he did. By that time, the pharmaceutical companies were processing the medicine to kill any viruses. This new generation of product was heated, and company studies showed that heat killed the AIDS virus. I like to think that this little boy was not yet infected, and when he switched to the heat-treated medicine, he never would be.
But this story is not about him. It’s about what happened to all that product that had never been heat-treated. A product like the one that was removed so carefully from that little boy’s home. That little American boy’s little American home.
In November of 1984, the pharmaceutical company was not happy about the “excess inventory” of this unheated product. The company calculated that three out of four patients who received the unheated product were infected with HIV. They knew there was no cure. But what to do with all this unheated product?
They decided not to destroy it. They decided to sell it, to figure out where they could sell it and to sell it wherever they could. “We must use up stocks” before shipping the “safer, better” medicine to other countries, they wrote in company documents. They shipped that old, non-heat-treated medicine to South America, to Asia. Wherever they could get away with it. They shipped over 100,000 vials.
And they weren’t the only ones. Other drug companies did it too.
They kept doing it, kept selling that deadly infectious agent overseas to parents who thought of it as medicine. Until the United States Food and Drug Administration found out in 1985.
It’s ancient history, I suppose. Over thirty years ago. But I think of a mother I met, the mother of an Argentinean boy who got his first vial of Factor VIII in 1985. The heat-treated medicine was available, but he got the old medicine, and he got HIV too.