Compensation scheme for medical trial victims at mother and baby homes to open, but GSK won’t contribute

Forerunners of pharma company tested drugs at notorious homes for decades

The Government will soon launch a compensation scheme for children who received experimental vaccines without consent in the mother and baby homes, but pharma giant GSK, whose predecessor companies profited from the trials, has resisted calls to contribute.

Under an €800m scheme, which the Government said was due to open in the first quarter of this year, some 34,000 survivors of the Catholic institutions where tens of thousands of unmarried mothers were closeted for decades are eligible to apply for compensation.

Of those, some 300 infants and children were inoculated without consent in at least seven trials in homes between 1934 and 1973, including for diphtheria, polio, measles and rubella, and with so called four-in-one and five-in-one vaccines, according to a damning 2021 official report on the homes. Victims say the numbers could be far higher.

GSK’s predecessor companies developed a long-standing relationship with scientists at University College Dublin to conduct the trials, which the report said flouted the regulatory and ethical standards in place at the time.


GSK said the tests were “bona fide”, but admits there were “failings in the conduct of the trials, particularly in the context of seeking and/or receiving appropriate consents”. It has never issued an apology to victims.

The drugs used were developed by the Wellcome Foundation and Glaxo Laboratories, both now part of UK-listed GSK, which posted £22 billion in turnover in the first nine months of last year.

“It’s absolutely scandalous,” said Francis Timmons, am Independent councillor in south Dublin.

Cllr Timmons is one of only six people GSK has confirmed as having been a trial participant. He was aged 18 months and, later, 24 months, when he was inoculated as part of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP) trials.

The Government has urged GSK to contribute because of its “moral and ethical obligation” towards survivors of the trials. However, the Government acknowledges it has no powers to compel GSK to pay compensation and is still negotiating with religious orders about the redress scheme. Only one – the Bon Secours sisters – has agreed to contribute.

GSK has received 206 requests for information from people who believe they were involved in vaccine trials. Ireland’s Mother and Baby Homes Commission of Investigation in 2021 detailed the “systemic vaccine trials”.

“While the findings of the commission’s report are extremely upsetting, they do not question Wellcome or Glaxo’s responsibilities and duties in developing, manufacturing and supplying vaccines for the purposes described,” GSK said. “For this reason, we do not propose further reparations in response to the issues raised.”

Niamh Brennan, founder of the University College Dublin Centre for Corporate Governance, dismissed the response, saying: “I’d say GSK doesn’t apply its own standards to itself.”

With investors increasingly scrutinising businesses’ environmental, social and governance credentials, GSK has highlighted its commitment to human rights in its clinical research.

One senior partner at a law firm in Dublin noted that ethical and moral questions were “much more difficult for GSK to get away from” – especially as some of the vaccines went on to be commercially viable.

The firm said drugs developed by its legacy companies helped to form the “building blocks” of today’s GSK. Priorix, one of the most widely used vaccines for measles, mumps and rubella in the UK, where there is a current spike in measles cases, is produced by GSK.

Cllr Timmons said the report he received from GSK indicated he had suffered a very high temperature, vomiting and diarrhoea. “There were risks to these things,” he said. There is no record of any fatalities caused by the trials.

“As an organisation, they should be at least saying, ‘How can we play a part in trying to make amends for what happened?’. They were very blunt about not paying anything,” he told the Financial Times.

GSK said the company extended its “sympathies” to those affected. It has published summaries of the experimental trials.

Paul Redmond, a mother and baby home survivor and author of a book about babies born in the institutions, said it was “grotesque to just hand children over as guinea pigs” for vaccine testing.

“It’s human rights issue... Everybody is just going, ‘Look, you can’t prove there was any harm done, and because you were wards of the State, the medical officers in charge of the homes had the right to give permission to foreign companies to come in to do tests’.”

The commission’s 2021 report found no evidence that consents were given. The GSK spokesperson said the experienced researchers and those conducting the trials were personally responsible for ensuring they were carried out with all the licences and permissions required at the time, and it was “disappointed” that there had been “failings” in the conduct of the trials.

The last mother and baby home closed in 1998, but the institutions remain in the spotlight. The excavation of the remains of 796 babies believed to have been buried in a sewerage system in a home in Tuam, Co Galway between 1925 and 1960 is due to take place this year. – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2024

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