The Story Of One Of The Most Horrifying Scandals In The History Of Big Pharma

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Fossil fuel companies hid research into human-caused climate change. The tobacco industry was complicit in the smuggling of its own product. Then there was Ford’s “Pinto Memo” scandal – history is riddled with cases of big business making shady deals to boost profit margins at the expense of the consumer. A case in point: One of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies knowingly sold HIV-contaminated blood products to people with hemophilia. Many later died of AIDS.

Experts believe the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) emerged from the Cameroon jungle, where it passed from SIV-infected apes to humans by way of bushmeat – not interspecies sex, as rumor has it – at some point in the early-20th century. For decades, it lingered here, spreading to neighboring countries and infecting a handful of foreign visitors but attracting little global attention.

Things began to change in the early seventies when cases of a strange and mysterious disease that caused victims to waste away before dying of a secondary infection appeared in big cities across the United States. By 1981, there was a full-blown AIDS epidemic.

Little was known about the virus – only that it was strongly associated with clubs, drugs, and gay sex. However, by the summer of 1982, it was clear that it was being spread through infected blood. That July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released a report confirming that three hemophiliacs had contracted the virus.

Hemophilia is a disorder where the blood lacks the proteins necessary to clot properly and, without proper treatment, it can be deadly. So to manage the disorder, hemophiliacs require regular transfusions of blood products like Factor VIII concentrate – which is where Bayer, or rather a unit of Bayer called Cutter Biological, comes in. 

Cutter was a producer and distributor of Factor VIII. To make the product, they used giant batches of blood plasma that had been donated from upwards of 10,000 or so people. This meant that only a small number of HIV-positive donors were needed to contaminate the batch. What's more, by ignoring federal legislation introduced in the wake of the AIDS crisis and recruiting prisoners, high-risk gay men, and intravenous drug users to donate their blood, the company increased that risk. 

As a result, thousands of hemophiliacs were affected in what the New York Times refers to as "one of the worst drug-related medical disasters in history."

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