Western drug companies tested products on East Germans during Cold War – report

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For the duration of the Cold War, Western drug companies tested medication on East Germans, a medical report reveals. The companies are accused of using GDR’s dictatorship and low accountability to citizens to commercial advantage.

The report by the Berlin-based Institute of Medical History and Ethics details 900 experiments that took place between 1961 and 1989, as well as some 300 clinical trials. Of the companies involved, there were American, French and British firms, among others. A total of 75 companies from 16 different countries took part in the gargantuan project; these included heavyweights like Pfizer and Bayer.

Researchers had to use the help of a medical historian for two-thirds of the data, for which no documented evidence was available.

The scheme was apparently designed as a quick fix for the cash-strapped GDR, the authors write. Initially it was thought the main incentive was lower personnel costs.

"The GDR authorities gave their country’s health system over to Western companies and a research laboratory, in order to finance their own cash-strapped planned economy,” the authors claim. There were “considerable time and efficiency gains which the dictatorial GDR regime could offer.”

Despite this ominous association with human experimentation, it turned out the trial meds were actually tested in accordance with international standards of the time.

In conclusion, the authors weren’t able to find any evidence of systematic breaches of conduct.

“There is only fragmentary information about how the tests were explained from interviews between patients and doctors,” head of the research group, Dr. Voker Hess, said.

The one thing that remains unclear is whether people were forcibly coerced into taking part. The notorious Stasi’s participation could be a potential indicator of that.

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One other clear advantage of doing business in the East, however, was that the standards there were indeed a bit lower than the Western part. For example, in certain cases, a lower-quality cheaper alternative to an existing West German medication would be tested.

However, that is a far cry from what Der Spiegel wrote in 2013 in an article that became the basis and justification for the current study.

The piece talked of a “laboratory Ost”, describing a much grimmer atmosphere and experimentation on a larger scale. The popular Berlin Charite hospital was involved in the testing, which was confirmed by the new research.

The study is the first of its kind covering the dealings of Western drug companies in the former GDR.