Bioethics News

‘Testing in the East’: an episode in Cold War bioethics

In 2013 the influential German magazine Der Spiegel published an expose about clinical trials conducted by Western drug companies in East Germany during the Cold War. The magazine reported that at least 50,000 people had been test subjects for around 900 studies done by manufacturers that included leading companies from Switzerland, the United States, and West Germany. Fifty hospitals were sites of the research, including the prestigious Charite in East Berlin. The principle motivation for the East Germans was money: they desperately needed hard currency for their failing medical system. For their part the companies appreciated the far greater efficiency of recruitment in the East, and paid the East Germans up to 800,000 West German marks per study.

The agency responsible for setting up these contracts? The notorious Stasi, the East German secret police force that included hundreds of thousands of paid agents and hundreds of thousands of more informants.

Der Spiegel’s series about the drug trials contained language and themes familiar to many landmark bioethics cases. The revelations were described as a scandal that used the oppressed East Germans as human guinea pigs, including deaths and injuries that had not been properly reported, the indiscriminate use of low-birthweight infants and depressed patients, inadequate informed consent, powerful drug companies and physicians largely eager to cooperate in spite of the occasional protest. Complete with interviews with former test subjects and regretful doctors, the study had all the elements of a classical bioethics case study that could take its place along with the U.S. Public Health Service’s Tuskegee syphilis study; the Guatemala sexually transmissible disease experiments; and some of the well-documented human radiation, biological, and chemical warfare experiments in the U.S.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.