Close to 800 people are suing the prestigious Johns Hopkins Hospital System for controversial experiments that its officials allegedly carried out from the 1940s through the 1950s. Launched on Wednesday, the $1 billion lawsuit targets Johns Hopkins' alleged role in a Guatemala STD study that had intentionally infected Guatemalans with venereal diseases, the U.S. Health and Human Services department said in 2010.
The lawsuit filed in Baltimore City Circuit Court seeks damages for individuals, spouses and children of people who were deliberately infected with syphilis, gonorrhea and other sexually transmitted diseases under a U.S. government program from 1945 to 1956. Researchers were studying the effects of penicillin, a relatively new drug back then.
Al Jazeera reported that 774 of the plaintiffs claim that Johns Hopkins officials had "substantial influence" over the medical studies through its control in certain panels that influenced the federal government spending on research funds. According to the suit, Johns Hopkins, the Rockefeller Foundation, and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb (who were also named as defendants):
[D]id not limit their involvement to design, planning, funding and authorization of the Experiments; instead, they exercised control over, supervised, supported, encouraged, participated in and directed the course of the Experiments.
The plaintiffs alleged that the medical experiments were carried out overseas to give "researchers the opportunity to test additional methods of infecting humans with venereal disease easily hidden from public scrutiny." But Johns Hopkins, also an elite medical school, denied its role in the experiments. Its officials said that the university did not “initiate, pay for, direct or conduct” the studies in Guatemala.
Kim Hoppe, a university spokeswoman, told the Washington Post in an email that the institution will fight the lawsuit, adding:
For more than half a century since the time of the Guatemala study, scholars, ethicists and clinicians have worked with government officials to establish rigorous ethical standards for human research. Johns Hopkins welcomes bioethical inquiry into the U.S. Government’s Guatemala study and its legacy. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.
The horrific experiment, funded by a grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health, first came to light in 2010. President Obama, then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius all apologized for it.
According to AP, the Department of Health and Human Services found that researchers first infected Guatemalan sex workers with gonorrhea or syphilis, then allowed them to have sex with soldiers and prison inmates with the intention of transmitting the diseases. The Baltimore lawsuit claims that orphans, children and mental patients were among those the researchers wilfully infected without consent, and that treatment was kept from some subjects.
Bristol-Myers Squibb declined to comment to the news wire, but a statement from the Rockefeller Foundation called the study "morally repugnant" and agreed that the feds owed the victims and their families reparation. The statement also opposed the lawsuit, denying the foundation's role in the experiments.
[The Rockefeller Foundation] did not design, fund, or manage any of these experiments, and had absolutely no knowledge of them.
In 2012, victims of the study brought a lawsuit against the U.S. government. At the time, while acknowledging that the experiments was "a deeply troubling chapter in our nation's history," the federal judge in the case dismissed the lawsuit on the grounds that federal laws determined that the U.S. government could not be held liable for injuries suffered in a foreign country.
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