By Patricia McDonagh
Tuesday September 14 2010
A Dail committee has formally asked the Department of Health and all multinational drugs companies to hand over files relating to controversial vaccine trials carried out on children in state care.
The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Health and Children has written to the department and firms such as GlaxoSmith-Kline to extract information “as a matter of urgency”.
The move follows revelations in a recent Irish Independent investigation into vaccine trials carried out on vulnerable children in the 1960s and 1970s.
The decision to officially search for information about the controversial trials was decided during a brief private meeting last week.
Committee chairman, Fianna Fail TD Sean O Fearghail, said members may call for a formal investigation after a detailed examination of the files.
The move was broadly welcomed by victims and opposition politicians last night.
However, they criticised the Department of Health for failing to launch its own investigation into the trials — and for its refusal to apologise to survivors.
More than 211 vulnerable infants and babies — 123 of whom were in the care of the State — took part in three confirmed trials to test new vaccines between 1960 and 1973.
The trials were carried out by the Wellcome Foundation, a company that later merged with other firms to create GlaxoSmithKline.
However, it remains unclear whether the parents or guardians of the children had consented to the trials, or if the company had complied with Irish licensing legislation.
As well as these tests, details of further, previously unknown, trials were also handed over to the Commission to Inquire into Child Abuse by GlaxoSmithKline.
A brief — and unreported — paragraph in the commission’s Third Interim Report, published in January 2004, confirmed the receipt of relevant documents.
It is, so far, not known how many people were involved, whether children in state care were used for the trials or what medicines were tested.
And — as revealed by the Irish Independent — despite the publication of this report six years ago, the Government has refused to investigate this new evidence.
Mr O Fearghail said the committee was anxious to obtain as much information about the issue as possible.
“We want to fully brief ourselves on the issue. We are looking for that information as a matter of urgency and will decide what course of action to take when we examine the information,” he added. “One of the options would be to launch an inquiry.”
The committee received a formal request to probe the issue from Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly three weeks ago.
Welcoming the latest development, Dr Reilly said he was “delighted” the committee was looking into the matter.
Fianna Fail TD Charlie O’Connor, who is also on the committee, called on officials to ensure all information was disclosed.
“The Department of Health should cooperate with the committee,” he said
However, Adoption Rights Alliance spokeswoman Susan Lohan insisted the move by the committee should just be the start of uncovering the truth.
“It is astonishing that it has taken the initiative from an Oireachtas committee to drive this investigation forward,” she said. “The move is a welcome one, but even if a formal investigation is launched by the committee, this should be followed by an independent inquiry.”
Author and campaigner Paddy Doyle added: “An investigation into vaccine trials on children in the care of religious orders and the State must happen, and urgently.”
“The matter is too serious to be kept away from the many people who are worried that they may have been used as guinea pigs.”
The Department of Health last night again insisted that Health Minister Mary Harney would not open an inquiry into the trials.
The department said it was unable to confirm if it was aware of further vaccine trials conducted by other drug companies.
– Patricia McDonagh