Battles Launched Over Anti-AIDS Drug
Sunday Times (London) 30 Jan. 1994
IT HAS long
been billed as the great hope for HIV sufferers the wonder drug
AZT which, it is claimed, can slow the progression towards AIDS.
Now its manufacturer, the Wellcome company, is facing a legal case
that could blow apart a multi-billion-pound industry.
For Sue Threakall,
however, whose husband died after taking AZT, a writ served on her
behalf last week was more than an attempt to win damages. She said
it represented a chance to end what may be a terrible medical blunder
endangering thousands of lives.
40, a former deputy head teacher, has begun her legal action against
Wellcome and the National Institute of Allergic and Infectious Diseases
(NIAID), the United States government body that tested and promoted
legal aid, she is alleging there was a lack of care in the researching,
marketing and prescribing of the drug which, she says, contributed
to her husband's death. The writ is intended as the start of a group
action in Britain, with co-ordinated litigation in other countries.
from Birmingham, is convinced that far from helping her HIV-positive
husband, Bob, a 47-year-old haemophiliac, AZT damaged his immune
system so badly that even after he stopped taking it he went into
an irreversible decline.
He tested positive
for HIV in 1985, but continued working full-time as a civil servant
for four years. He was also involved in a campaign to win compensation
for haemophiliacs who had become HIV-positive as a result of treatment
for their blood disorder. "He was gregarious, leading a full
and busy life," Threakall said.
In August 1989
he was put on AZT, a toxic drug thought to be helpful in fighting
HIV, which most doctors believe is the cause of AIDS. His wife believes
the decision effectively ended his life.
A letter dated
August 25 from the haemophilia unit where he was treated acknowledged
that "this gentleman is feeling reasonably well" but added
that "in view of the recent study concerning the beneficial
effects of AZT in HIV-positive people" he had been started
on daily doses.
The study mentioned
was co-ordinated by NIAID in collaboration with Wellcome, whose
sales of AZT totalled Pounds 270m last year. It was stopped early
on the grounds that it had "clearly demonstrated" benefit,
but its scientific validity has since been challenged.
A longer trial,
conducted by government researchers in Britain and France, failed
to find any benefit from AZT in HIV-positive people in fact, sickness
and death were higher in the treated group. Detailed analysis of
the study, due to be published in The Lancet next month, is expected
to confirm this gloomy picture.
her husband's health deteriorated from the time he was started on
AZT. By December 1989 he was taking more time off work and did less
of everything else. "Life here was absolute hell he was so
miserable. I was trying to hold down my own job, but I gave it up
the following summer because it was getting impossible to cope,"
life stopped. Bob changed from being a happy, gentle man to someone
who didn't want anyone near him. It became a nightmare trying to
feed him. I would make him a Marmite sandwich with the crusts taken
off and he would spend an hour chewing it he became virtually anorexic.
He was ashamed at being so thin."
At his request,
the AZT treatment was stopped in July 1990. "I think it was
too late," Threakall said. "He was so ill by then and
so undernourished that he continued to go downhill."
She has since
found that doctors have reported "worrying" evidence that
blood and bone-marrow changes in long-term AZT treatment "seem
not to be readily reversed when the drug is withdrawn".
He was admitted
to hospital seven months later, where he died after three days "confused,
delirious, wasted, constant diarrhoea, unable to swallow and with
hardly any normal lung tissue left", according to his wife.
His symptoms were attributed by doctors to HIV, although he was
never diagnosed as suffering from full-blown AIDS.
April, after reading a report in The Sunday Times that a group of
American scientists was challenging the theory that HIV causes AIDS,
Threakall wrote to Dr Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular biology
at the University of California at Berkeley and leading member of
has described AZT as causing "AIDS by prescription", wrote
back enclosing a package of material on AIDS and HIV that was to
start Threakall on a journey of discovery that led to her decision
I am right about what happened to Bob, and if the drug is toxic,
what about all the other people who are taking it?" she said.
Graham Ross, of JKeith Park and Co, in Liverpool, has received instructions
in seven more cases. Six involve haemophiliacs and one is from a
homosexual man suing over the death of his partner.
Ross said that
he had become increasingly concerned about the death of Bob Threakall.
"I have seen a lot that shows this case is strong. This would
mean there has been a horror story in the treatment of HIV-positive
individuals; and if there is a horror story, it will continue until
the truth comes out."
it would defend the case. *
LINDSEY, 2 IN ORDEAL OF PAIN
STEVE and Cheryl
Nagel, from Minneapolis, are also planning to sue Wellcome. Their
adopted daughter, Lindsey, was born in Romania in October 1990 and
brought back to America that year. They found within a few weeks
that she tested HIV-positive.
She was put
on Retrovir syrup AZT, as marketed for children's use for 22 months.
"By the grace of God, we determined that it was making her
ill," Steve Nagel said.
For the first
18 months her health declined. She did not eat properly, suffered
nausea and diarrhoea and became hyperactive. Then, for three months
in 1992, the two-year-old "would wake up in the middle of the
night grabbing her knees and screeching; she was in severe pain".
They consulted Dr Peter Duesberg, who says HIV does not cause Aids,
and he told them they should take Lindsey off AZT. "Two days
later, the pains stopped, and have never come back since,"
said her father. *