The Apology Was Late; But Would It Have Mattered 50 Years Ago?

Bioethicist Arthur Caplan recently expressed an understandable reaction to a 50-year-old apology:

NBC News is reporting that The Gruenenthal Group, a German company, has apologized for recommending its drug thalidomide to help with morning sickness.  Unfortunately the drug (which was never approved for sale in the United States) led to a number of cases of birth defects in many countries.  It’s infamy has perhaps faded from those not directly effected, unless you remember that Billy Joel song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”

The apology was issued in person by the company’s chief executive at an event commemorating a memorial to those who suffered from the drug.  An English translation of his remarks is available.  The drug was withdrawn – at least for use in treating morning sickness – in 1961.  While a German lawsuit was settled in 1972, the company has not, even with this apology, admitted liability in the matter.  It has only paid out to German victims as conditions of the settlement.  However, a recent successful lawsuit against an English distributor of the drug may have the company a bit concerned about future suits.

Certainly the lack of an apology, and the resistance against a campaign for more recognition of the consequences of thalidomide, have not helped the public perception of this company.  Had the company apologized in 1961, what difference might it have made?  From a public relations/corporate image perspective, it likely would have helped some.  Scientifically, however, the testing of the drug and the subsequent release strike me as little different from other drugs that have been recalled due to side effects with some combination of severity and widespread impact (Vioxx, for example).  If the testing at the time did not, or could not, adequately determine the risks of birth defects, then perhaps the company would have better served itself and the research community by trying to figure out how the birth defects might have been tested for.  I don’t for a moment consider this an easy task, but a serious effort could have been seen as a sign of good faith.

When governments fail in a way similar to this, there is some effort at trying to make sure the wrong – as grievous as it may be – will be much harder to repeat.  That might mean a lot more to the ‘children of Thalidomide’ than one man’s words.

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