A scanning electron microscopic (SEM) image of two Treponema pallidum bacteria, the germ responsible for syphilis
Image: Joyce Ayers (CDC)

For the time being, pharmaceutical company Bristol Myers-Squibb and others will not be allowed to avoid a billion-dollar civil lawsuit over their alleged roles in a U.S. government-led study in the 1940s that deliberately and secretly infected Guatemalan people with syphilis. Last week, Reuters reported, a federal Maryland judge struck down an argument by defense lawyers that domestic companies should be exempt from lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that allege human rights violations outside of the country.

In 2010, Wellesley College professor Susan Reverby uncovered the historical atrocity. She found that U.S. researchers conducted a series of unethical human experiments throughout the 1940s and 1950s on thousands of Guatemalan prisoners, soldiers, sex workers, and mental health patients, some of whom were young as 10. The experiments were carried at the behest of the U.S. government’s Public Health Service and with the approval of the Guatemalan government.

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The overall purpose of the study was to test out whether antibiotics could be used to prevent syphilis and other sexually transmitted infections before its symptoms appeared in someone who was exposed to them. So the researchers initially recruited sex workers with syphilis to have sex with prisoners. Later on, they directly infected volunteers without their informed consent or knowledge of what was really happening. In many cases, though, infected people were left untreated. In total, 83 deaths were linked to the study, though it’s not entirely certain whether the infections were the direct cause (That said, late-stage syphilis is often fatal).

In a particularly bleak footnote, one of the U.S. doctors involved in the Guatemalan experiment—John Cutler—went on to participate in the Tuskegee syphilis experiment, a similarly appalling study that purposefully withheld treatment from American African men in Alabama who had naturally contracted syphilis.

Following Reverby’s discovery, then-President Barack Obama personally apologized to Guatemala president Álvaro Colom. Among other things, for instance, many of the worst aspects of the study were kept hidden from Guatemalan officials at the time. But survivors of the experiment, as well as their families, have tried to seek further recompense.

In 2012, a class-action lawsuit filed against the U.S. government by the victims’ families was dismissed on the basis of sovereign immunity, a legal doctrine meant to protect governments from prosecution in its courts. But the government wasn’t the only party at blame for the experiment, the current lawsuit now claims. It alleges that researchers from Johns Hopkins University as well as the Rockefeller Foundation also helped design or otherwise secure the study’s approval and funding, as did executives from Bristol Laboratories and the Squibb Institute, the two companies that later merged into Bristol Myers-Squibb.

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According to Reuters, defense lawyers tried to have the lawsuit dismissed on the basis of a recent Supreme Court decision that ruled foreign companies are protected from certain lawsuits filed in U.S. courts that allege human rights abuses committed by them. They argued the same blanket protection should apply to domestic companies as well. But U.S. District Judge Theodore Chuang did not agree, stating in his ruling that letting the Guatemalan plaintiffs pursue their case in the U.S. court system would “promote harmony,” Reuters reported.

In a statement by Johns Hopkins, Reuters reported, the University stated that it expressed “profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study,” but also that it would “continue to vigorously defend the lawsuit.”

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The Rockefeller Foundation stated to Reuters that the lawsuit has no merit and that it holds no culpability for the study, while Bristol Myers-Squibb has so far stayed silent. The company has not immediately responded to a request for comment from Gizmodo.

[Reuters]

Correction: A previous version of this article misspelled Bristol Myers-Squibb as Bristol Meyers-Squibb. We regret the error.

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