The Pill Pirates
In April 1995, a major epidemic of meningitis struck the country of Niger. A drought added to the woes of this country of 8.4 million people. Niger authorities requested international assistance, after an estimated 2,500 had died and 26,700 people became sick. International aid delivered nearly five and one-half million doses of vaccine. Pharmacists Without Borders (Pharmaciens sans Frontières), a French-based relief organization, undertook a large-scale vaccination campaign.
To assist in the crisis, the government of Nigeria offered 68,000 doses of vaccine. The vaccines, which were allegedly manufactured by Rhone- Poulenc affiliate Pasteur Merieux and SmithKline Beecham, were offered with great publicity by the regime of General Sani Abacha, the unofficial president of Nigeria, in an effort to bolster the country's dismal humanrights image. Unfortunately, the vaccines that Nigeria donated were counterfeit. An additional 3,000 people died because of the counterfeit vaccine, sparking an international incident.
"The counterfeit drugs were illegally manufactured by someone with a high technological and professional competence," said Dennis Fontaine of ReMeD ( Réseau Médicaments & Développement), a French relief agency. "The individual or group responsible for the deed has never been identified."
Pasteur Merieux alerted the French authorities and filed a formal complaint. The Nigerian government formally denied the French charges of having supplied copies of the original vaccine to Niger. Judge Courroye of Lyon, France, who was handling the case, launched an inquiry concerning the counterfeits through Interpol. 1 The counterfeit vaccines were