* German firm apologises 50 years after drug withdrawn
* Victims in Britain and Australia say apology inadequate
* Gruenenthal says it could not have known effect of drug
By Annika Breidthardt
BERLIN, Sept 1 Victims of thalidomide said on
Saturday an apology from the German inventor of the drug that
caused birth defects in thousands of babies around the world was
too little too late.
Thalidomide, developed by the German firm Gruenenthal, was
marketed internationally to pregnant women in the late 1950s and
early 1960s as a treatment for morning sickness. About 10,000
babies were born around the world with defects caused by the
drug, mostly malformed limbs or missing arms or legs.
"Having tried to remind them of their criminal behaviour
across a negotiating table on several occasions, I didn't think
this company would ever make things right," said British
thalidomide victim Geoff Adams-Spink.
"This is an important first step. The next is to compensate
everyone damaged by their so-called 'totally harmless' drug,"
said Adams-Spink, who heads the European Dysmelia Reference
Information Centre, a support group for those with limb
malformations attributable to thalidomide and other causes.
Gruenenthal, which says it had paid roughly 500 million
euros to victims by 2010, unveiled a commemorative statue on
Friday. At the ceremony, its chief executive, Harald Stock, said
the company was sorry for what had happened to the victims.
"In the name of Gruenenthal ... I want to take this
opportunity to express our deep regret over the consequences of
Contergan and our deep sympathy for the victims, their mothers
and families," Stock said at the ceremony in the western German
city of Stolberg, where the company is based.
"We also ask for forgiveness for not reaching out to you
from human to human for almost 50 years ... We ask that you see
our long speechlessness as a sign of the silent shock that your
fate has caused us."
Several thousand victims of thalidomide, sold in Germany
under the brand name Contergan and elsewhere as Distaval, are
Gruenenthal was not reachable for comment and it was not
clear whether the 500 million euros in payments had been to
victims in Germany only or also abroad, where other firms
marketed the drug.
German thalidomide victims get a monthly pension of up to
1,116 euros from a trust to which Gruenenthal contributes.
An Australian woman whose daughter won a multi-million
dollar settlement in July against Diageo Plc, the legal
successor to thalidomide's Australian distributor, said the
apology was an insult.
"It's the sort of apology you give when you're not really
sorry," Wendy Rowe told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation.
Lynette Rowe, now 50, was born without arms or legs after
her mother took thalidomide for a month while pregnant. Her
lawyers said Gruenenthal did not contribute to the settlement.
Referring to Stock's statement of 'silent shock', Wendy Rowe
said: "Our family couldn't have gone into silent shock. We had
to get up and face each day and every day and cope with the
incredible damage that Gruenenthal drug did to Lyn and our
The Rowe family's legal firm, Slater & Gordon, called the
drug manufacturer's apology "pathetic": "It is too little, too
late and riddled with further deceit."
Rowe's settlement followed a A$50 million payment Diageo
agreed to make in 2010 to 45 thalidomide victims in Australia
and New Zealand, who sought help to cope with the mounting costs
of care as they were living longer than expected.
The cases have been closely watched in the United States,
where a complaint has been filed against GlaxoSmithKline
, Sanofi-Aventis, Avantor Performance Materials
and Gruenenthal, with several plaintiffs claiming their birth
defects resulted from their mothers' use of thalidomide.
The thalidomide scandal triggered a worldwide overhaul of
drug-testing regimes and boosted the reputation of the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration, which refused to approve the drug.
Gruenenthal said it had acted to the best of its knowledge.
"In developing Contergan, Gruenenthal acted according to the
scientific knowledge back then and fulfilled all industrial
standards for the testing of new medication," Stock said.
Many German thalidomide victims stayed away from the
unveiling of Gruenenthal's statue, which portrays a child with
shortened arms, calling it a public relations stunt.
"The fact that Gruenenthal, a billion-euro company, is
paying 5,000 euros (for the statue) is a slap in the face of
every victim," said the federal association of Contergan
"This PR measure is supposed to signal to the public that
the company still has Contergan on its agenda, without any
serious effort to address the concerns of the people who have
been permanently damaged."
Harold Evans, Reuters editor at large who led a campaign for
compensation of thalidomide victims as editor of Britain's
Sunday Times from the late 1960s, said justice delayed was
"Fifty years of injustice is not to be assuaged by the most
heartfelt apology, unaccompanied as it is by any compensation
for the pain and suffering thousands of survivors endure every
day," he said.