Thalidomide maker hushed up drug's side effects, German report says

BERLIN (Reuters) - The firm that invented thalidomide, a drug that caused birth defects in thousands of babies, carried out a deliberate misinformation campaign when experts first spotted possible severe side effects, a report commissioned by the German state of North-Rhine Westphalia (NRW) said on Friday.

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. It was sold under the name Contergan in Germany, and elsewhere as Distaval.

The drug harmed around 5,000 people in Gerymany alone, of whom around 2,400 are still alive. Many victims were born with missing arms or legs, malformed limbs or severe nerve damage.

“We deeply regret the thalidomide tragedy and it will always be part of our corporate history,” said Frank Schoenrock, a spokesman for Gruenenthal, adding that the firm was in a constructive and continuous dialogue with the victims.

He said the company would evaluate the study, commissioned by the NRW health ministry, and could not make more detailed comments on its contents at the moment.

The report, produced by the University of Muenster, said that once experts started drawing links between thalidomide and nerve damage, the manufacturer gave out intentionally false information and hushed up knowledge it had about the drug’s side effects.

The study said the firm had also used delaying tactics and threats of potential claims for damages against the state to keep the drug, which achieved high sales, on the market for as long as possible. Reuters was unable to independently confirm its findings.

“The manufacturer could have spared a lot of people a lot of suffering if it had removed Contergan from the market after numerous indications that there were harmful side effects,” NRW Health Minister Barbara Steffens said.

The report said that even after the drug was pulled from the market, authorities were overwhelmed by the situation. It said they had trouble clarifying the effects of thalidomide, determining the number of people affected and banning Contergan. A spokeswoman for the NRW health ministry said the legal framework for banning the drug did not exist at the time.

Niklas Lenhard-Schramm, author of the study, said that at the time, drug manufacturers were responsible for ensuring the safety of medications, unlike the state licensing procedure in place now.

Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Mark Trevelyan