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7 Nov, 2011 05:28

Bhopal victims: Lab rats for Big Pharma

Tens of thousands of Indians were poisoned when toxic gas leaked from a plant owned by a US corporation. Now they claim they are suffering even more after pharmaceutical companies used the opportunity to try dangerous experimental drugs on them.

In 1984, 30 tonnes of noxious gas leaked from the Union Carbide pesticide plant in Bhopal, India, killing around 20,000 people, many of them instantly. Twenty-five years on, victims of India's worst-ever industrial disaster are still coping with the aftermath of a day they will never forget.“I clutched my children and dragged my wife and mother toward the bus station,” remembers Ramadas Srivastav, a Bhopal victim. “Everyone was screaming ‘run, run!’ We crossed another village where more people got in the car and everybody in the village was screaming ‘run, run!’”Experts say Union Carbide had faulty equipment, poorly-trained employees, and inadequate evacuation plans. In the aftermath, despite being charged with manslaughter, managers were bailed out and flown back to the United States, never held to account for their part in the disaster.Union Carbide eventually reached a $470 million settlement with India’s government, but left without even cleaning up the mess, which caused thousands more to suffer.Today, thousands like Ramadas Srivastav still suffer, and they are angry.“We were very healthy before the gas leak took place,” Srivastav says. “After this incident we became very sickly. Our health never improved.”After the leak, many Indians were wary of foreign companies, but it turned them into prime candidates for clinical trials. They thought they were getting treatment, but doctors often used experimental drugs without the patients’ knowledge.The patients apparently consented, by signing papers in English they did not understand. And many say they never signed anything at all. For each participant in a clinical trial the doctor received around $2,000.The clinical trials took place in Bhopal Memorial Hospital. About 80 per cent of trials are believed to have been on gas leak victims, who were also treated in this hospital.RT obtained documents that show at least six trial programs that took place in Bhopal between 2004 and 2008.“It is profoundly ironic that the victims of the worst chemical disaster, where the largest multination corporations were involved, would get re-victimized by another set of multinational corporations – pharmaceutical corporations,” says Satinath Sarangi, an activist of Sambhavna Trust Clinic.Srivastav became suspicious when he was repeatedly asked to bring one of two bottles of medicine back – a common practice in clinical trials. “They didn’t tell us the name of the medicine, but told us that we were given trial drugs,” he said. “The medicines had numbers.”Repeated requests by RT to speak to the government or Bhopal Memorial Hospital were denied.Experts say that medical testing on people needing actual treatment is unethical, unsafe and unscientific. And documents show that at least 11 people who unknowingly took part in the Bhopal trials died after taking the drugs. “When you do drug trials on people whose injures have not even been assessed, let alone treated, you are taking a great risk,” Sarangi said.Today, Srivastav still waits for justice, left to suffer a double tragedy.“Because of the medicines I am slowly losing my sight,” he says. “I have lost my appetite, I cannot work for long either and I suffer from breathlessness.”