I actually thought this was pretty common knowledge, until I googled this headline trying to find mainstream discussion of it. Although it is covered well on Wikipedia, and there is a single article at the New York Times, very few news sources seem to be discussing the topic. Alas, there appears to be very little coverage of this well documented and ethically unacceptable decision by Bayer to sell HIV contaminated blood to countries in Asia and South America without informing them of the risk or taking any steps to prevent infection.
A recent study from 2014, better described a form of research audit, by Professor Leeman McHenry from California State University uncovered and further documented details of this shady business decision. The abstract paints a morbid picture: executives decided to ignore health risks in their antihemophilic blood products (AHF) when they were discovered to be contaminated by the HIV virus. Instead of doing the right thing and getting rid of or at least informing the buyers, Bayer executives in their Cutter Biomedical branch remained tight-lipped and sold the contaminated blood to uninformed buyers overseas.
The year this happened was 1985, and Bayer was completely aware that the products were contaminated, which is why they were sold in less developed markets, the NYT article describes this as “steering the riskier overseas.” When the FDA discovered this, according to the New York Times article, they decided NOT to inform the medical community or congress. Ironically, this type of behavior in the face of unethical behavior or even outright corruption is still commonplace in the FDA.
Why didn’t this make a bigger splash, why doesn’t this information come up on any of the first pages when you google Bayer and HIV together? The answer is simple: there is limited financial incentive for people to write about this, and much more financial incentive for Bayer to largely bury this story. In fact, burying a story may be accomplished by a company simplying paying for Google keywords related to the story, and pushing “sterilized” articles that don’t touch on the actual scandal or matter at hand. There was a law suit regarding the HIV contamination in 2003, but nothing ever came from it.
The only way we can circumvent these efforts to obscure the truth, to hide scandal, to hide corruption, is through direct communication. By talking to and informing others of what we find out, by supplying them with the sources to do their own confirmation, we not only inform them but set an example they are scientifically likely to follow.
Here is the exact timeline from the early 1980s, as listed in the NYT articles:
JULY 1982 — Centers for Disease Control reports three hemophiliacs ill with what later became known as AIDS and warns that the disease may be transmitted through blood products including concentrate.
JANUARY 1983 — A Cutter official warns in a letter that ”there is strong evidence to suggest that AIDS is passed on to other people through . . . plasma products.”
JUNE 1983 — Cutter complains to overseas distributors about ”unsubstantiated speculations” linking AIDS to concentrate.
FEBRUARY 1984 — Cutter gets license in the United States to sell new concentrate that has been heated to kill H.I.V.
OCTOBER 1984 — C.D.C. says a study with Cutter found that heat treatment kills the AIDS virus. Prototype H.I.V. test finds 74 percent of hemophiliacs who used unheated concentrate tested positive for H.I.V.
NOVEMBER 1984 — Cutter notes excess inventory of unheated product. ”Will review international markets” to see if more unheated product can be sold.
NOVEMBER 1984 — The company tells its Hong Kong distributor ”we must use up stocks” of unheated medicine before switching to ”safer, better” heat-treated product.
FEBRUARY 1985 — A Cutter task force asks in a memo, ”Can we in good faith continue to ship nonheat-treated coagulation products to Japan?”
APRIL 1985 — Cutter considers trying ”to influence a delay in introduction of heattreated product” in Japan. The company later says it did not act on that suggestion.
MAY 1985 — Cutter tells its Hong Kong distributor that the unheated medicine poses no ”severe hazard.”
MAY 1985 — Cutter says Hong Kong doctors question whether it is selling off ”excess stocks of old AIDS-tainted” medicine.
MAY 1985 — The Food and Drug Administration realizes that companies are still selling unheated concentrate overseas. F.D.A. official wants problem ”quietly solved without alerting the Congress, the medical community and the public,” according to Cutter documents.