Guatemalans File $1 Billion Lawsuit Over U.S. Government Research that Exposed Subjects to STDs

Guatemala City, where in the 1940s the U.S. government conducted experiments that non-consensually exposed subjects to STDs. (Rigostar, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Guatemala City, where in the 1940s the U.S. government conducted experiments that non-consensually exposed subjects to STDs. (Rigostar, CC BY-SA 3.0)

NEW YORK — More than 750 Guatemalans filed a lawsuit Wednesday in the U.S. city of Baltimore against Johns Hopkins University, drugmaker Bristol-Myers Squibb and The Rockefeller Foundation over their alleged roles in experiments that intentionally exposed Guatemalan subjects to sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s.

The lawsuit alleges that, from 1945 to 1956, the defendants played a significant role in U.S. government experiments in Guatemala “in which children, soldiers, prison inmates, psychiatric hospital patients, and orphans were intentionally exposed to and infected with syphilis, gonorrhea, chancroid, and other diseases” without their knowledge. The experiments were conducted to test the efficacy of different kinds of penicillin eventually intended for commercial production.

“Johns Hopkins expresses profound sympathy for individuals and families impacted by the deplorable 1940s syphilis study conducted by the U.S. Government in Guatemala,” said Johns Hopkins spokeswoman Kim Hoppe in an email to Latin America News Dispatch, but denied the lawsuit’s allegations, saying they are “an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.”

The Rockefeller Foundation also denied the claims, which a foundation spokesperson said were “without merit,” adding that the foundation “did not design, fund, or manage any of these experiments, and had absolutely no knowledge of them.”

Bristol-Myers Squibb did not immediately respond to emails or phone calls requesting comment for this article.

In 2010, President Barack Obama publicly acknowledged and apologized for the experiments and requested a fact-finding mission from the U.S. Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues. The commission’s report concluded in 2011 that the experiments “involved gross violations of ethics as judged against both the standards of today and the researchers’ own understanding of applicable contemporaneous practices.”

The president of Guatemala at the time of Obama’s announcement, Álvaro Colom, called the experiments “an incredible violation of human rights” and demanded justice for the victims.

This is not the first time that the victims of the experiments have sued. In 2011, the plaintiffs sued U.S. government officials, but the case was dismissed.

The plaintiffs — among whom are 124 people who allegedly died as a result of the experiments — are seeking $1 billion in punitive damages. The lawsuit alleges that “Johns Hopkins and The Rockefeller Foundation helped design, support, develop, encourage, and finance, and participated in and benefited from the Guatemala Experiments.”

Johns Hopkins has denied these accusations, saying that the university “did not initiate, pay for, direct or conduct the study in Guatemala.”

The lawsuit also alleges that Bristol-Myers Squibb’s predecessor companies “supplied penicillin in various forms for use in the negligently and unethically designed experiments, and were made aware of the study results in order that they might better manufacture and market for profit various forms of the drug for use in treating and/or preventing syphilis.”

The U.S. Public Health Service carried out the experiments between 1946 and 1948, with follow-up research continuing into 1953, according to the Bioethics Commission’s report. The experiments were part of a broader effort by the U.S. government to prevent STDs from spreading, especially among soldiers.

In total, researchers intentionally exposed 1,308 people to syphilis, gonorrhea and chancroid. Commercial sex workers, who in most cases were also intentionally infected with the diseases, were often used to transmit disease to the subjects.

Dr. John Cutler, who was also a primary researcher in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments that took place from 1932 to 1972, directed the studies. In the Tuskegee experiments, nearly 400 syphilitic African American men were told they would be given free government health care for their “bad blood,” but were ultimately left untreated as doctors monitored the progression of their disease, despite penicillin being recognized as an effective cure for syphilis in the 1940s.

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