Features » November 11, 2003
Eli Lilly and Thimerosal
In the 70 years since thimerosal/Merthiolate was developed, the FDA never required Eli Lilly to conduct clinical studies of its safety, despite ample evidence of its toxicity and its highly allergic properties. In fact, the FDA today still refers to the 1931 Powell and Jameison study on its Web site as indication of the “safety and effectiveness” of thimerosal as a preservative. Thimerosal/Merthiolate was widely used in over-the-counter products, including ointments, eye drops, nasal sprays and contact lens solution. In 1998, the FDA finally banned Thimerosal for use in OTC products—18 years after it began a safety review of mercury-containing products. It took another year before the CDC and the FDA would ask manufacturers to remove thimerosal from childhood vaccines. Eli Lilly stopped making Merthiolate-containing products in the mid-’80s but still profits from licensing agreements with pharmaceutical companies around the world.
Eli Lilly faces hundreds of civil lawsuits from parents who blame thimerosal for their autistic children. But the pharmaceutical giant has powerful friends in the White House and in Congress. The elder George Bush sat on Lilly’s board of directors in the 1970s, and White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels was a Lilly executive. Lilly CEO Sidney Taurel was named by President George W. Bush to the Homeland Security Advisory Council. In November 2002, Congress passed a provision, tucked into a spending measure for homeland security, to indemnify Eli Lilly from lawsuits and require families to seek compensation through the federally funded Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. It was repealed in February 2003 after public outcry. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) still hopes to pass a similar bill. Congressional consideration for Eli Lilly makes sense: In the 2002 election cycle, the company gave more than $1.5 million to federal candidates, with three quarters to Republicans, making it the fourth-biggest giver in the pharmaceutical industry, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. In the current election cycle, the company already has given close to $230,000 (67 percent to Republicans) to federal candidates.
Eli Lilly may be determined to avoid liability for thimerosal, but that doesn’t mean it has abandoned children with neurological problems. This year, the FDA approved Straterra, a new Eli Lilly drug for the treatment of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. The irony that Eli Lilly profits from damaged children is not lost on parent Robert Krakow: “When Eli Lilly is promoting Straterra on TV, saying up to 10 percent of children can be helped, you realize what we are up against.”
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Annette Fuentes is a New York-based journalist who writes frequently on health and social policy issues. A contributing editor of In These Times, she is co-author with Barbara Ehrenreich of Women in the Global Factory.