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Remastered Guide to an Evil Empire: Pfizer, part one
This is an expansion of the Guide to an Evil Empire: Pfizer Lawsuit article. Due to the sheer size of this article, I will break it into pieces for easy reading. As always, I have attempted to be as accurate as possible, but if there are issues or nuances I have missed1, please feel free to leave a comment and I will make a correction. Pfizer has been involved in more lawsuits than I can count, so I attempt to use individual lawsuits as examples of their business practices. The goal of these articles is to make the most extensive and exhaustive account of the long history of the Pfizer empire. Please like, share, comment, and subscribe if you enjoyed this content.
Do I start at the beginning or at the end? My previous article, in fact, started at the end. The tale is hardly romantic: despised multinational corporation with a criminal past becomes a cult icon for drug pushers around the world. Yet there was an evolution, somewhere along the line, that turned Pfizer into what they are today. This time, I wanted to start at the beginning to show how far from grace this company fell.
Our story2 begins in Williamsburgh, New York, where Charles Pfizer and his cousin, Charles Erhart, borrowed money to produce an anti-parasitic drug called santonin. The drug was, by all means, effective in its’ application, though far from safe. The true appeal of Pfizer’s first foray into the business world is that the drug was, allegedly, tasty.
With the revenue from santonin and supplying Union forces during the American Civil War, Pfizer was able to open their head office on Wall Street in 1868. Twelve years later, the company began to produce citric acid, which allowed them to expand their business into Chicago two years later. Eventually, the company’s citric acid production became a key component in the supply chain of another start-up called “Coca-Cola”.
As the years went on, Pfizer expanded into other business ventures including vitamin production. When Charles Pfizer died in 1906, his obituary labelled him “one of the best chemists in America”, and that may well have been true at the time, but perhaps Charles’ greatest achievement was putting John Anderson at the helm. The company, under Anderson, ensured that even when their employees were drafted to participate in the First World War, Pfizer would continue to distribute paychecks to their families. Concurrently, in 1917, 34 year old James Currie brought them his invention: a new way to synthesize citric acid using sugar. Sugar Under Conversion Into Citric Acid (SUCIAC), perfected in the early 1920’s, allowed the company to expand even further, and Currie later remarked that he had gone to Pfizer because they were the largest citric acid producer in the United States.
When the Great Depression occurred, the company took measures in order not to reduce wages or lay off workers. Emile Pfizer, the youngest son of Charles, donated a considerable sum of his own money to ensure that Pfizer employees would be able to work at least three days a week. Allegedly, the lifelong goal of Emile was to create a company pension plan, and indeed, his actions seem to back up his words. Shortly after the Second World War began, in 1940, Emile died of illness. In his will, he gave up much of his personal wealth to long-time company employees and the rest of his stock was donated to the company itself.
If there was ever a moment when Pfizer began the transformation into what it is today, Emile’s death may have been that moment. No, the company did not immediately become bad actors. Just a year later, they would begin production of penicillin, and create the first penicillin production plant in the world. But Emile’s death allowed the company to go public in 1942. As we are about to see, within twenty years, the company was already beginning to fall into the pattern of behavior seen to us today.
Tetracycline, price fixing, and the beginning of Pfizer’s monopolistic tendencies
In 1958, Pfizer, American Cyanamid Company, and Bristol-Myers were brought to court by the US. government for violating the Sherman Act as part of a conspiracy to monopolize the antibiotics market by excluding competition from the market and fixing prices. Heyden-Newport Chemical Corp applied for a patent on tetracycline, but Cyanamid bought out Heyden-Newport’s rights to tetracycline and agreed to help Pfizer obtain the patent. Bristol-Myers later joined the two companies in order to form a monopoly over the antibiotic market. In 1967, the Justice Department won a grand jury indictment against the companies, which could have landed the executives of these companies in jail. The price fixing scheme allowed $1.60 capsules to sell for over $510.
The companies appealed the ruling and were later acquitted, in 1976, due to reasonable doubt. This appeal was granted despite the fact that the evidence against these companies, both oral and written, were statements that the defendants had made themselves. In the period between the original ruling and the appeal, the companies, including Pfizer, agreed to pay $120 million to settle the claims. The money was to be split between state and municipal hospitals, other pharmaceutical companies, and the federal government.
Ultimately, the government gave up prosecuting cases surrounding antibiotics in 1982 when they failed to have Pfizer’s tetracycline patent nullified for fraud.
False and misleading advertising
While it is an open secret that pharmaceutical companies dictate the findings of many studies, this practice is not new. The scope of the advertising, though, may surprise people. One publication writes that in 1958 “the drug industry paid for 3,790,908,000 pages of advertising in medical journals”. This a scale of advertising unprecedented in any other industry: this is big business, and Pfizer is one of the biggest sharks in the water.
Here is an except from the same journal article, reproduced in full:
“The Kefauver hearings found, however, that drug manufacturers sometimes failed to disclose to doctors or to the FDA reports in their possession of serious and even fatal side effects.
In particular, the hearing revealed that prescription drug advertisements failed to list or discuss possible adverse reactions. A survey of promotion in six leading medical journals, covering thirty-four important trade name drugs advertised in a total of 2033 pages during a nine-month period ending in March 1959, found that in eighty-nine per cent of the ads there was ‘no reference to side effects at all or only a short dismissal phrase which was typically less a warning than a reason for prescribing.’ Among the advertisements surveyed were several for Diabinese (chlorpropamide), an oral antidiabetic introduced in 1958 by Chas. Pfizer & Co., Inc. Although its promotion claimed an ‘almost complete absence of unfavorable side effects,’ a report prepared for Pfizer showed twenty-seven per cent incidence of side effects, including jaundice.”
These types of incidents have not gone away with more regulation. The methods have just evolved over time. Even today, with the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine, we are seeing a new evolution of the same practice. Now, instead of Pfizer advertising in medical journals, medical professionals are doing the advertising free-of-charge.
Sabin Polio Vaccine
Vaccines seems to have been the point in which Pfizer began to run into legal troubles for adverse events from the drugs it distributed as a wide range of cases began to arise from their use of the polio vaccine created by Albert Sabin. These vaccines were not Pfizer intellectual property; rather, the company was one of many manufacturers involved in the process of production and distribution. Nonetheless, a wide array of lawsuits results during the 1960’s.
Early in 1963, in the case of Cunningham v. Pfizer, a fifteen year old was given the type I Sabin vaccine and subsequently contracted polio. The patient was not informed of the risks prior to receiving the vaccine. Pfizer argued in court that even if the patient had been warned of the risks, there is no evidence the patient would not have taken the vaccine due to the risk of contracting polio from natural sources.
Only a few years later, in Reis v. Pfizer, the polio vaccine was administered to a man’s newborn son, the man later contracted polio as a result of contact with his son. The plaintiff developed poliomyelitis, which left him permanently crippled. This particular tort remains controversial as the plaintiff attempted to bring the lawsuit after the statute of limitations had passed, which was denied by the judge. The patient was not aware of the connection until he read about it in a magazine years later. Strict liability claims have a statute of limitations of three years; though, it seems to be a good indicator of the fact that there was a back-burner approach to informed consent.
In 1966, a man suffered severe adverse reactions after being given three vaccines, which were administered in a Tulsa, Oklahoma clinic free of charge. The vaccines led to “consisting of permanent paralysis of the lower extremities and damage to the lower organs of the body, including incontinence of the bladder”.
In 1969, in Pfizer’s appeal to Grinnell v. Pfizer, a judge upheld a $60,000 award for the plaintiff, who had taken the polio vaccine in 1962 immediately before contracting the disease and leaving him paralyzed in his left arm.
As early as 1964, the company began working with the United States military to create chemical incapacitating agents. While the 1964 document shows their trials to find chemicals that could produce retrograde amnesia on rats and dogs failed, the fact that these experiments were being run shows that Pfizer had morphed, at least by this point, from a relatively benign company producing citric acid, vitamins, and penicillin, to a profit-driven corporate antagonist.
The document suggests that these experiments were ongoing, and the search for a drug that could cause a potent retrograde amnestic effect did not stop in 1964. Interestingly, these experiments were run contemporaneously with other, more famous experiments, such as MKUltra. While there is no evidence suggesting that Pfizer participated in the project, a common trend among survivors of those experiments was retrograde amnesia. Of course, many researchers from pharmaceutical companies and universities were implicated in the experiments many years later, it is difficult to ascertain specific details due to most of the evidence being shredded and burned before it could be declassified.
In any case, the late 1950s and 1960s appear to be where Pfizer begins to become a fractional representation of today’s corporate empire.
This is the end of part one of a multi-part series. Part one covers roughly the beginning of Pfizer in 1849 to the early 1970’s. Pfizer’s lawsuits get progressively more dense as the years go on but this may be due to better records being kept in the latter part of Pfizer’s history.
Please subscribe to stay tuned for part two in this ongoing series.
There are going to be holes which are hard to patch up; for example, the Pfizer measles-K (inactivated virus) and measles-L (live virus) vaccines were pulled off the market in 1967 and 1970 respectively. The accounts I have seen are due to the inactivated virus having few adverse events but long term efficacy problems and the live virus having more adverse events but better long term efficacy. That said, they may have been pulled off the market for entirely different reasons and I have been unable to find any lawsuits involving these vaccines.
For the first portion of this article, I will be heavily relying on the book “The Legend of Pfizer”. While this book is obviously written by an interested character, I do think that up until the 1940’s, the narrative is about as accurate as we will be able to find.