silence one of their top molecular biologists that a federal jury in
Connecticut awarded her $1.37 million in damages last week?
The unraveling answer promises to tear open the curtain covering hazards
confronting tens of thousands of scientists and assistants in corporate
and university labs doing genetic engineering work with viruses and
Becky McClain's lawsuit against Pfizer claimed that the company's
sloppiness in 2002-03 exposed her to an engineered form of the
lentivirus, a virus related to one that could lead to immune
deficiencies. Pfizer denied any connection between its lab practices and
Ms. McClain's recurring paralysis and other illnesses.
Back and forth over three years came the scientist's claims and Pfizer's
denials during which she had to leave her job amidst the increasing
retaliatory behavior of her ten-year employer.
Pfizer is known for playing hardball and violating laws. Last year it
had to pay the Justice Department one of the largest fines half civil,
half criminal for illegal promotion of its drugs for unapproved uses.
The fine -- $2.4 billion avoided criminal charges and prosecution,
either of the company or officials, and became just another cost of
Just last week, soon after buying Wyeth Labs for $68 billion, Pfizer's
CEO, Jeffrey B. Kindler, told a reporter for The New York Times that his
company has "invented too few drugs and left its reputation in
disrepair after two criminal cases."
That record does not diminish Pfizer's advantage over its imperiled lab
workers, which is built on the absence of any available risk
assessments, the very nature of possible latent, silent violence, and
the cruel refusal to give afflicted employees their own exposure records
on the grounds that they are company trade secrets.
Pfizer offered Ms. McClain a paltry sum with a gag order, which she
promptly refused. She wanted her freedom of speech and her
whistle-blowing rights under federal law. Her lawsuit was filed in 2006
By dismissing the third count, which might be appealed, in her complaint
alleging Pfizer's wanton misconduct, U.S. District Judge Vanessa L.
Bryant ruled that the plaintiff did not have available the evidence of
causality and it was a worker's compensation matter anyway. Herein
started the chicken-egg problem. How could Ms. McClain obtain the
evidence in order to prove her case when Pfizer said it was proprietary
The Council for Responsible Genetics (CRG), started by Harvard and MIT
scientists, does not believe laboratory exposure records of workers
should be trade secrets. Life, health and remedial rights should trump
any such alleged, bizarre property right.
Becky McClain has already exhausted any remedies or assistance from the
woeful Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). This agency
has been without any regulations or disclosure requirements about
biohazards in laboratories. This inertness might change with the
appointment of David Michaels to head OSHA, which should bring the
agency closer to its mission of preventing or diminishing tens of
thousands of fatalities and injuries each year.
Mr. Michaels told the Times that "new biological materials,
nanomaterials, there are many things where we don't have adequate
information, and we think workers need to have protection." He indicated
that OSHA will take another look at the McClain case.
Both Jeremy Gruber, president of CRG, and Steve Zeltzer, chair of the
California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day, believe the McClain case
will lead to broader scrutiny of biologic laboratories, where research
is expanding rapidly with heavy federal funding.
It is well known that workers in these labs are inhibited from speaking
out, either inside or outside their workplace, for fear of losing their
jobs. OSHA has long known that companies in old and new industries often
do not come close to fully reporting cases of their injuries and
sickness either to their insurers or to state or federal job safety
agencies. Some have been found to keep two sets of books.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics data are not at all comprehensive.
Under-reporting can hide half or three-fourths of the actual traumatic
Mr. Zeltzer has denounced what he calls "the failure of top company
officials to even report to OSHA and other government agencies that many
workers were getting sick numerous times in their laboratories although
this is required by the law." He called on the US Attorney in Hartford
to begin a criminal investigation. (see workersmemorialday.org)