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O'Gorman stresses GSK's 'moral obligation' over vaccine trials but company's position 'remains unchanged'

Representatives from the pharmaceutical giant met with Children’s Minister Roderic O’Gorman today.

Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, pictured in January.
Sean Ross Abbey in Roscrea, Co Tipperary, pictured in January.
Image: Niall Carson/PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Apr 28th 2021, 3:22 PM

MINISTER FOR CHILDREN Roderic O’Gorman has reiterated his view that pharmaceutical giant GSK has a “moral obligation” in relation to vaccine trials that were carried out in Mother and Baby Homes and similar institutions.

O’Gorman met with representatives of the company earlier today to discuss the situation.

Despite a “constructive” conversation, GSK has said its position remains unchanged and it will not pay compensation to people who took part in the trials.

The Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes identified 13 vaccine trials that took place in the institutions it examined, as well as clinical trials of non-commercial infant milk products in the late 1960s.

A number of trials were carried out by Glaxo Limited and the Wellcome Foundation, which over time merged to become GlaxoSmithKline. GSK provided the Commission with records about trials conducted in children’s residential institutions in Ireland from 1930 to 1973.

The Commission’s final report, which was published in January, found that the trials in question did not comply with the consent standards at the time.

In March, O’Gorman wrote to GSK asking it to consider providing financial compensation to people who took part in the trials. In the letter, O’Gorman noted that former residents and their relatives had raised concerns with him about the trials and expressed “their sincerely held view that reparations should be forthcoming from GSK”.

However, in a letter responding to the minister, GSK said it would not be paying out. The company has proposed setting up “a dedicated and confidential information service to assist in responding to questions from former residents and their families”.

A spokesperson for O’Gorman told The Journal this week that the minister remains of the view that “all relevant parties, including GSK, have a moral and ethical obligation to take appropriate action in response to this Commission’s report”.

Speaking after today’s meeting concluded, the spokesperson told us that O’Gorman and the representatives from the company discussed GSK’s proposal for a dedicated information service “to assist former residents and their families in relation to vaccination trials”.

“The Minister emphasised concerns raised with him by Mother and Baby Homes survivors regarding vaccine trials. He reiterated his view that GSK has an ethical obligation to take appropriate action for people directly affected by vaccine trials.

“He noted the wide range of actions that the State is undertaking to live up to its own obligations, and asked GSK to reflect further on the company’s obligations to survivors.”

The spokesperson added that O’Gorman “will engage further with GSK on these matters”.

‘Unchanged position’

A spokesperson for GSK told The Journal the meeting was “open and constructive”.

“The Minister has sought further clarification from us regarding certain aspects of the records we hold, which we will work to provide as a priority. We look forward to engaging further with the Minister and his team in the coming weeks. We are also committed to progressing plans to improve our information service without delay.

“We acknowledge the position of the Minister and the perspective of others on the issue of reparations. While we will consider the representations made by the Minister today, our position regarding the payment of redress as outlined in our letter of last month remains unchanged.”

Speaking ahead of the meeting, the spokesperson for GSK said the company hoped that the proposed information service “will go some way to support those who are understandably searching for more information and transparency relating to their personal experience or that of their families”.

They added: “We would like to re-emphasise our deep sympathies to all those affected by the issues outlined in the Commission’s report.

“While we acknowledge the public statements made on the issue of reparations, and 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 of the clinical studies.

“For this reason, we do not propose to pay reparations in response to the issues raised in the report.”

Legal challenges

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In the letter sent to O’Gorman last month, Eimear Caslin, GSK’s general manager for Ireland, stated that independent researchers conducting the trials were “personally responsible for ensuring they were carried out with the licences, permits, permissions and consents required under Irish law and practice at the time”.

The letter stated: “We are disappointed to read the findings in the report that, based on the available evidence, there were failings in fulfilling those responsibilities, particularly in the context of seeking and/or receiving appropriate consents.”

Caslin, who attended the meeting today, added that each of the trials described in the Commission’s report was “bona fide and undertaken for the purpose of legitimate medical and scientific investigation into improvements to essential childhood vaccines and in one trial, infant milk products”.

The letter also referred to a finding in the commission’s report that “no adverse injuries were experienced by children involved in these trials”.

As previously reported by The Journal, a number of women, including Philomena Lee and Mary Harney are taking legal challenges to quash certain elements of the Commission’s final report.

One of the other cases is being taken by Mari Steed, who was born in Bessborough Mother and Baby Home in Cork and is the US co-ordinator of the Adoption Rights Alliance. She is seeking to quash the Commission’s finding that there was no evidence any child was harmed by vaccine trials carried out at the institutions.

About the author:

Órla Ryan

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