GSK in Spotlight for Alleged Unethical Trials

January 13, 2012
Stephanie Sutton
Pharmaceutical Technology

GlaxoSmithKline has faced intense media scrutiny this week after being fined approximately 72 650 Euros by a court in Argentina for allegedly conducting unethical clinical trials on children for the company’s pneumococcal vaccine, Synflorix.

GlaxoSmithKline has faced intense media scrutiny this week after being fined approximately 72 650 Euros by a court in Argentina for allegedly conducting unethical clinical trials on children for the company’s pneumococcal vaccine, Synflorix.

I always seem to be writing about GSK in my blogs but this is a much more sombre subject compared with the recent news of GSK CEO Andrew Witty’s knighthood. This week’s attention on GSK is focused on the COMPAS (Clinical Otitis Media and PneumoniA Study) study, which involved almost 24 000 children and was completed in Argentina in June 2011. The fine issued by the Argentinean National Administration of Medicines, Food and Medical Technology (ANMAT) related to administrative procedures in place for the study in 2007 and 2008. According to media reports (Sky News, CNN), some consent forms were signed by illiterate parents or people who did not have custody of the children. Claims have also been made that some children feeling unwell after vaccination were not seen by doctors.

Fourteen children are reported to have died during the study. Because the trial involved children, it is an extremely sensitive and emotional topic that has evoked strong reactions from some media sources that accuse GSK of “killing” babies and “experimenting with humans”.

But there are two sides to every story. Personally, I don’t believe that any reputable pharmaceutical company would experiment on humans.

GSK emphasised in a press statement that the fine relates to administrative procedures and “does not question the safety of the study vaccine”. Indeed, according to the statement, any deaths in the study were thoroughly investigated and both an independent data monitoring committee and ANMAT both concluded that none of the deaths were related to the vaccine.

The administration irregularities with obtaining informed consent were identified by GSK in 2007 and 2008 as part of routine monitoring, which takes place at 6-week intervals.

“The company proactively reported these findings to ANMAT and immediately put in place a corrective action plan which involved reconfirming informed consent of patients in the study and retraining doctors… where necessary,” explained GSK’s press statement. “The safety of patients participating in the study was not put at risk and ANMAT agreed that the study could continue as planned.”

Some media sources have also accused GSK - and other Western pharma companies - of taking advantage of developing countries to experiment with new treatments. In the case of GSK’s Synflorix, however, developing countries are a logical choice for a clinical trial. Estimates from the World Health Organisation claim that more than 500,000 young children die each year from pneumococcal infection, with the vast majority of these deaths occurring in developing countries. The GAVI Alliance also explains that although a vaccine against pneumococcal disease has been widely used in Europe and the US since 2000, it was not optimal for developing countries because it lacked different strains of pneumococcal bacteria that are common in developing countries.

Although Argentina is not really considered a developing country, it still has a large number of people living in poverty and pneumococcal disease is a significant health burden.

GSK says that it “respectfully disagrees” with the court ruling in favour of ANMAT and will appeal to the Supreme Court of Argentina. However, if unethical practices did take place during the trial then GSK has said it will pursue the matter.

“We are also concerned by allegations that treatment was delayed for some children in the trial if they were unwell and, if true, these events are shocking… we will be looking into this further,” said the GSK statement.