The British newspaper The Times revealed in a report on November 30, 2021, that the former head of the Thalidomide manufacturer—a drug that has caused more than 100,000 miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths and children born with stunted or missing limbs worldwide—offered a surprising apology to the victims and their families for the first time in 60 years.
Michael Wirtz, 82, son of Grünenthal founder Hermann Wirtz, expressed his regret on behalf of his family at an online event on November 27, in commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the dragging of the drug from the market, which bore the trade name Contergan in Germany, and was made to treat morning sickness for pregnant women.
In a video recording of a conversation between Michael Wirtz and Udo Herterich, the chairman of the federal association of Contergan victims, “the owners of the company are expected to face the matter bravely, not to hide behind a legal entity of Grünenthal,” Wirtz said.
“We cannot change what happened. The Contergan tragedy is part of our company's history, and we deeply regret the far-reaching consequences. Frankly, and formally in front of witnesses, I apologize for all the damage done to your families,” Wirtz added.
The former head of the company that made thalidomide, which led to more than 100,000 miscarriages, stillbirths and infant deaths and children born with stunted or missing limbs, has apologised to victims and their families for the first time https://t.co/3LPPX4t6Pl— The Times (@thetimes) November 30, 2021
On his part, Udo Herterich told The Times: “Wirtz apologized, but it would have been more appropriate to ask us to accept his apology. We hope that this is the beginning of something, and that the company responds to the apology by offering an increase in compensation.”
“We are getting old and need more care, and there is a need for clear increases in compensation, especially for those who have been affected the most. Several thousand fetuses died in their mother's womb, and many children were stillborn. Many of the victims died or did not reach the age of sixty because they were severely damaged by this drug,” Herterich continued.
Herterich, 60, is forced to use a wheelchair due to stunted legs, his eyes, ears, arms, hands and some internal organs were also damaged.
“The German state had not yet apologized. As they then turned the parents into culprits, unlike what happened in the United Kingdom. When you apply for benefits from Germany's Contergan, you must agree not to sue Grünenthal, otherwise they will not pass the application. The German state surrounded Grünenthal with a huge shield,” Herterich also said.
The story began in 1950 in West Germany, when Heinrich Mückter, researcher and medical director of Chemie Grünenthal Pharmaceuticals, developed Thalidomide, or what scientists call the greatest man-made medical disaster, according to a study published by Dr. Judy Stone in Clinical Research in the American Scientific Journal.
Heinrich Mückter (1914-1987) was wanted in Poland for war crimes after conducting medical experiments in concentration camps, during which hundreds of prisoners may have died.
Mückter and Grünenthal are also part of the post-war network of German scientists and businessmen who played leadership roles during the Nazi era.
“Although we cannot at this point prove that thalidomide was certainly developed and tested in concentration camps by the Nazis. However, there is compelling circumstantial evidence that it was tested as part of their search for an antidote to the nerve agent,” Martin Johnson, Director of Thalidomide UK, said.
In July 1956, West German medical authorities authorized the over-the-counter sale of the drug as a pain reliever and a sedative. It was soon used in various cases such as colds, fever, pneumonia, and in relieving morning sickness associated with the onset of pregnancy.
After the drug was introduced to the German market, the demand for it increased in the European market and in most countries of the world. This drug also became a Panadol of that era.
Within a few years, Chemie had licensed 14 companies to market Thalidomide in more than 70 countries around the world under 37 different trade names.
At the beginning of the sixties, many pediatricians noticed a strange phenomenon of deformation of newborns, as they are born without limbs, some without hands, some without legs, and some without ears. These cases were called seal symptoms due to the short or absence of their limbs.
The Scottish physician Dr. Alexander Leslie was the first specialist to openly discuss the company's claims. In a letter he wrote in 1960, he reported the development of severe neurological symptoms.
Leslie described tingling or pins-and-tear tingling in the hands and feet in 4 of his Thalidomide-treated patients.
In 1961, Dr. William McBride, obstetrician and gynecologist, who co-published the use of Thalidomide as a treatment for morning sickness, wrote to The Lancet.
McBride described several severe malformations of a newborn out of 5 born to mothers who took Thalidomide during pregnancy.
Chemie Grünenthal stopped distributing the drug locally on November 26, 1961, following a federal investigation into a similar increase in birth defects, after more than 5 years of putting the drug on the market. This was followed by a discontinuation of distribution in the UK on 2 December 1961.
By 1962, the drug had been banned in most of the countries in which it was sold.
By the time the drug was withdrawn from the market in 1961, an estimated 5,000 babies in Germany and 10,000 babies worldwide were born without or with shortened limbs, with hearing and vision disabilities, heart problems and brain damage. In addition to the death of about 80 children within months, according to the British newspaper The Guardian.
There have also been reports of a significant increase in abortion rates during the period when Thalidomide was used on a global scale.
There are still between 5,000 and 6,000 injured people alive, according to an estimate.
In 1968, Grünenthal dignitaries went on trial for bodily harm and criminal murder.
The company’s officials were acquitted in 1970 without a final ruling, after a political intervention by the West German Federal Government.
A settlement was reached between the company and the West German Federal Government.
As part of the settlement, Grünenthal paid approximately €51 million, and the German government also paid an additional €51 million to a state-run and partially funded foundation to fund pensions and other payments for 2,400 surviving victims in Germany, which marketed the drug as Contergan.
Grünenthal also made a second payment of €50 million in 2009, and the federal government has added about €160 million to the fund, including one-time payments and monthly pensions.
In 2012, the Grünenthal company issued a statement saying it regretted the drug's disastrous consequences.
Recently, the Thalidomide Foundation told DW that the German government has so far spent around €1.8 billion on Thalidomide-related compensation.
The fact that Thalidomide continues to be used today is perhaps surprising news, despite the tragedy that occurred about 60 years ago because of it.
In 1998, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of Thalidomide to treat many diseases such as leprosy, cancer, and AIDS.
According to the UK Thalidomide Society website, the drug remained in medical stores around the world long after it was withdrawn from the market in 1962, because it was an active ingredient in children's cough medicine.
In 2015, Professor Neil Vargesson's Research, under the title “Thalidomide-induced Mutamorphosis: History and Mechanisms,” and published on PubMed Central, explained that “cases of fetal malformations re-emerged despite attaching a warning sheet to the drug, categorically warning pregnant women against using it. However, some pregnant women used it ignorantly, which led to the exit of deformed children. This has been reported, especially in Brazil.”
Thalidomide has been used by Brazilian doctors as the drug of choice to treat a complication caused by leprosy since 1965.
By 1996, at least 33 cases of Thalidomide-associated fetal development were reported in people born in Brazil following the drug's global withdrawal.
Although production, dispensing, and prescribing of Thalidomide are strictly controlled, Cases of fetal developmental disorder associated with Thalidomide are still ongoing.
At least 100 cases were recorded in Brazil between 2005 and 2010. As 5.8 million Thalidomide tablets were distributed throughout Brazil during this time period.
In 2010, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that it does not recommend Thalidomide for leprosy because its use is difficult to control appropriately, and because of the availability of a better drug, Clofazimine.
Former boss of thalidomide maker Grünenthal apologises to victims
How the thalidomide scandal led to safer drugs
Thalidomide ‘caused up to 10,000 miscarriages and infant deaths in UK’
From the Holocaust to Thalidomide: A Nazi Legacy [Study]
Thalidomide‐induced teratogenesis: History and mechanisms [Research]