Judge Acquits Canadian Doctors, U.S. Drug Company in Tainted Blood Case
A Canadian judge on Monday acquitted New Jersey-based Armour Pharmaceutical Company and four Canadian doctors -- including the former medical director of the Canadian Red Cross and two government officials -- of charges related to blood products contaminated with HIV and hepatitis C, the New York Times reports (Austen, New York Times, 10/2). More than 1,000 people contracted HIV and an estimated 20,000 people contracted hepatitis C from contaminated blood and blood products during the mid-1980s, the Toronto Star reports (Small/Huffman, Toronto Star, 10/2). At least 3,000 people are known to have died as a result of receiving tainted blood products. Seven of the people who contracted HIV were named as plaintiffs in the trial (BBC News, 10/1).
In November 2002, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police filed 32 charges against four doctors, Armour and the Canadian Red Cross Society in relation to the blood contamination. The charges filed included criminal negligence causing bodily harm. The charges against Armour are related to its blood product for hemophiliacs called Factorate. The product, which helps blood to clot, was heat-treated to kill HIV; however, the Canadian police alleged that Armour knew the process was "inadequate" to kill HIV but continued to distribute Factorate to hemophiliacs in Canada (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 12/10/02).
Four doctors -- Roger Perrault, former director of the blood transfusion service of the Canadian Red Cross; John Furesz, former director of the Bureau of Biologics at Health Canada; Wark Boucher, former chief of the blood products division of the Bureau of Biologics; and Michael Rodell, former Armour vice president -- were also charged in the case. Prosecutors in May 2005 dropped criminal charges against the Canadian Red Cross in exchange for the group paying $4,000 for violating Canada's Food and Drugs Act, as well as about $1.2 million for medical research and scholarships for victims' families. The Canadian Red Cross already had paid about $55 million to victims through a separate fund (Kaiser Daily HIV/AIDS Report, 8/5/05). A second trial involving Perrault is scheduled to begin this year. Perrault faces six counts of common nuisance in risking the health of the public for allegedly neglecting to properly test donors, implement testing for bloodborne viruses and warn the public of danger regarding both hepatitis C and HIV (Small/Huffman, Toronto Star, 10/2).
The Canadian government under Prime Minister Stephen Harper in December 2006 completed a $1 billion federal compensation package for about 5,000 people infected with hepatitis C because of the blood products (Toronto Star, 10/2).
Michael Bernstein, an attorney for the government, said that the defendants sacrificed the health of Canadians. Defense lawyers said that officials acted reasonably based on scientific knowledge of HIV in the 1980s (Small/Huffman, Toronto Star, 10/2). Ontario provincial Superior Court Justice Mary Lou Benotto on Tuesday said defendants acted responsibly and did not exhibit disregard for the lives and safety of the patients, Toronto's Globe and Mail reports.
Benotto said, "The events here were tragic," but to "assign blame where none exists is to compound the tragedy." She also said that the "evidence taken as a whole establishes a thoughtful, careful and considered course of conduct" on the part of the doctors, adding that the "allegations of criminal conduct on the part of these men and this corporation were not only unsupported by the evidence, they were disproved."
Mike McCarthy, who contracted hepatitis C from tainted blood, said the judgment was a "miscarriage of justice," adding that the government should appeal the acquittals (Picard, Globe and Mail, 10/2). John Plater of the Canadian Hemophilia Society, who contracted HIV and hepatitis C through tainted blood, said, "What has been suggested ... is that the behavior of the gentlemen involved and the company involved should now be lauded, that they were doing a wonderful job," adding that "no one in the history of examining what happened here has ever suggested that they did a good job" (Small/Huffman, Toronto Star, 10/2).
David Scott, a lawyer for a senior Health Canada official who was acquitted, said the "charges should never have been laid," adding, "It was a mistake from the beginning and people's lives have been brutally affected by them." Eddie Greenspan, lawyer for the former head of the Red Cross blood program, said the ruling is an "absolute vindication and complete exoneration." Defense lawyers said that, in light of the acquittal, they will seek to have the legal fees of the accused reimbursed and will consider filing lawsuits for malicious prosecution, the Globe and Mail reports (Globe and Mail, 10/2).
The government's response to the verdict was "cautious," according to the Star. Health Minister Tony Clement ahead of the verdict said, "No one can guarantee that nothing will go wrong ever again, but if something does go wrong we can tackle it a lot sooner and a lot more effectively than before" (Woods, Toronto Star, 10/2).