Revelations that US government researchers gave syphilis to hundreds of Guatemalan prisoners in the 1940s prompted a formal apology last year, as well as a President’s bioethics commission meeting that starts today. But it turns out that the US government has more skeletons in its closet.
A review by the Associated Press uncovered more than 40 additional instances of ethically dubious experiments on prisoners and other human subjects. In contrast to the syphilis experiments, which were never publicly disclosed, the AP review draws from medical journals and old newspaper articles touting the tests. The revelations include:
-A 1942 study by Polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk in which inmates at an insane asylum were infected with an experimental flu vaccine and later influenza.
-A late 1940s experiment by University of Minnesota scientists where 11 public employees were infected with malaria and starved for 5 days, before being treated.
-Efforts by government researchers in the 1950s to infect prisoners with gonorrhoea by pumping bacteria through the men’s urinary tracts. The research was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association.
Incidents in which prisoners were infected with cancerous cells and children with mental retardation were given hepatitis in the 1960s, as well as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments, sparked widespread public condemnation of such research, and rules limiting research on prisoners. Now, all clinical studies performed in the US must be approved by ethics review boards.
However, Susan Reverby, the historian at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who revealed the Guatemalan syphilis tests, told Nature in a Q&A last year that privately funded research performed outside the US could circumvent ethical checks. “Most US drug trials are now conducted internationally. We have controls in the United States, but what’s being done elsewhere in the world? If the Guatemalan study had been done by a private drug company, I never would have known about it.”
Watch a live webcast of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethics meeting here.