On April 1, a $1 billion lawsuit was filed by three law firms based in the United States and Venezuela against Johns Hopkins University, the Rockefeller Foundation, and Bristol-Myers Squibb on behalf of more than 750 Guatemalans alleged to have been harmed when the U.S. Public Health Service and the Guatemalan government supported an immoral STD inoculation study in the 1940s. A previous lawsuit against the U.S. government was dismissed on technical legal grounds in 2012. Having found the study’s records in the archives at the University of Pittsburgh, I wrote about it and shared my findings with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The result was an apology from the Secretaries of State and the Department of Health and Human Services on October 1, 2010, a call from President Obama to then President Colom of Guatemala, worldwide media attention, and a 200-page report by the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, as well as a report by a parallel commission in Guatemala. I have not been involved in this lawsuit, although one of the lawyers called me about the names of the people involved months ago.
This new lawsuit raises the serious and still unresolved question of how to obtain justice for those harmed by the study. The difficulties are enormous. The names in the records are vague. The study took place nearly 70 years ago. The U.S. Public Health Service ran it with funds from the National Institutes of Health and the Health Ministry in Guatemala. So who should pay for the harm to the victims and their families?