The world’s biggest pharmaceutical company hired investigators to unearth evidence of corruption against the Nigerian attorney general in order to persuade him to drop legal action over a controversial drug trial involving children with meningitis, according to a US embassy cable released on WikiLeaks.
Pfizer was sued by the Nigerian state and federal authorities, who claimed that children were harmed by a new antibiotic, Trovan, during the trial, which took place in the middle of a meningitis epidemic of unprecedented scale in Kano in the north of Nigeria in 1996.
Last year, the company came to a tentative settlement with the Kano state government that was to cost it US$75 million. However, the cable suggests that the US drug giant did not want to pay out to settle the two cases — one civil and one criminal — brought by the Nigerian government.
The cable reports a meeting between Pfizer’s country manager, Enrico Liggeri, and US officials at the Abuja embassy on April 9 last year.
“According to Liggeri, Pfizer had hired investigators to uncover corruption links to federal attorney general Michael Aondoakaa to expose him and put pressure on him to drop the federal cases. He said Pfizer’s investigators were passing this information to local media,” the cable said.
The cable, classified as confidential by economic counselor Robert Tansey, continues: “A series of damaging articles detailing Aondoakaa’s ‘alleged’ corruption ties were published in February and March. Liggeri contended that Pfizer had much more damaging information on Aondoakaa and that Aondoakaa’s cronies were pressuring him to drop the suit for fear of further negative articles.”
While many thousands fell ill during the Kano epidemic, Pfizer’s doctors treated 200 children, half with Trovan and half with the best meningitis drug used in the US at the time, ceftriaxone. Five children died on Trovan and six on ceftriaxone, which for the company was a good result. Later it was claimed that Pfizer did not have proper consent from parents to use an experimental drug and there were questions over the documentation of the trial.
The cable claims that Liggeri said Pfizer, which maintains the trial was well-conducted and any deaths were the direct result of the meningitis itself, was not happy about settling the Kano state cases, “but had come to the conclusion that the US$75 million figure was reasonable because the suits had been ongoing for many years costing Pfizer more than US$15 million a year in legal and investigative fees.”
In an earlier meeting on April 2 between two Pfizer lawyers, Joe Petrosinelli and Atiba Adams, Liggeri, the US ambassador and the economic section, it had been suggested that Pfizer owed the favorable outcome of the federal cases to former Nigerian head of state Yakubu Gowon. He had interceded on Pfizer’s behalf with then-Kano state governor Mallam Ibrahim Shekarau — who directed that the state’s settlement demand should be reduced from US$150 million to US$75 million — and with the Nigerian president.
There is no suggestion that the attorney general was swayed by the pressure. However, the dropping of the federal cases provoked suspicion in Nigeria. Last month, the Nigerian newspaper Next ran a story headlined, “Aondoakaa’s secret deal with Pfizer.”
Aondoakaa expressed astonishment at the claims in the US cable when approached by the Guardian.