More than 780 people filed a $1 billion lawsuit Wednesday against Johns Hopkins University over experiments conducted in the 1940s that deliberately infected more than 1,000 Guatemalans with syphilis and other STDS without their knowledge or consent.
The experiments were funded by the federal government. But "the only thing the federal government provided was money," Ron Jenkins, lead attorney on the case being brought against Hopkins, told BuzzFeed News. "The experiment itself was designed, promoted, organized, implemented, and assisted by these defendants."
The study intended to test how well antibiotics like penicillin could work in treatment or prevention of sexually transmitted infections, including syphilis and gonorrhea. The total study population involved over 5,500 Guatemalan prisoners, sex workers, soldiers, children, and psychiatric patients. The experimenters, approved by the U.S. National Institutes of Health, initially used infected prostitutes to spread the disease. When the prostitutes did not succeed, some individuals had bacteria poured directly onto scrapes made on their penises or injected via spinal punctures.
It is unclear how many of the victims were successfully treated for their infections.
The lawsuit alleges that Johns Hopkins had "substantial influence" over the studies because seven of its professors controlled panels advising the government on how the studies should be conducted or recommended the study at the federal funding level. One professor, Joseph Moore, was also involved in the famed Tuskegee experiments in the U.S., in which hundreds of black American men with syphilis were deliberately left untreated for 40 years. Another would later go on to become president of the university.
Rockefeller University and pharmaceutical manufacturer Bristol-Meyers Squibb, which supplied the penicillin necessary for the experiments, were also named in the suit.
Representatives from Johns Hopkins told BuzzFeed News that the university "expresses profound sympathy" for the victims of the Guatemalan study. But, they emphasize, Hopkins should not be held accountable for what was a U.S. government-led experiment. "This was not a Johns Hopkins study. Johns Hopkins did not initiate, pay for, direct, or conduct the study in Guatemala. This lawsuit, however, is an attempt by plaintiffs' counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain."
Human rights activists and ethicists have long called for the victims and their families to be compensated.
The story was only discovered in 2010 after a medical historian digging through the archives at the University of Pittsburgh unearthed unpublished work on the experiments.
When the story came out, the Obama Administration issued a formal apology to the Guatemalan government, the surviving victims of the study, and any descendants of those unwittingly infected. In September of 2011, the Presidential Commission for Bioethical Issues put together at 220-page investigative report called "Ethically Impossible" on the Guatemalan experiments. The director of the National Institutes of Health told the New York Times the study reflected "a dark chapter in the history of medicine." The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention invested $775,000 to help the Guatemalan government improve surveillance and treatment of sexually transmitted diseases in the country.
But to this day, victims of the study remain uncompensated.
"What happened to these individuals is deplorable and they deserve compensation," I. Glenn Cohen, professor of law at Harvard's Petrie-Flom Center for Health Law Policy, Biotechnology & Bioethics, told BuzzFeed News by email.
But Cohen also pointed out that the victims may face difficulty in claiming compensation from the private university. In the case of the Tuskegee experiments, the U.S. government compensated living descendants. But so far, the Guatemalan victims have struggled to receive the same.
A 2012 class action lawsuit brought against individual federal officials involved in approving the experiments was dismissed after the judge stated that pleas of victims for relief were more appropriately directed to the political branches of government.
"Among the challenges they will face [in the case] is proving that Johns Hopkins employees were acting in their institutionally sanctioned and directed way rather than independent capacities in the work that they did," Cohen said. "Again I hope these people can get compensation, but I am less sure Hopkins is the right entity to be held responsible."
Jenkins, the lawyer representing the more than 780 Guatemalan victims, insists that Hopkins as an institution should still be held responsible for its role in the study: "It's impossible for Hopkins to say that anything that these professors were doing was outside the scope of their employment; that's absurd."
He also pointed out that the details of the study were not revealed until nearly six decades after the fact. "It was all very very carefully hushed up. There was a lid put on it."