Bristol-Myers to face suit over US syphilis experiment in Guatemala

Bristol-Myers Squibb is among those ordered by a US judge to face a $1 billion lawsuit launched in 2015 by 774 Guatemalan victims and relatives over an expriment in 1940s which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent STDs (AFP Photo/GEORGES GOBET)

Washington (AFP) - A US federal judge has ruled pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb, Johns Hopkins University and the Rockefeller Foundation must face a $1 billion lawsuit over their roles in a 1940s medical experiment that saw hundreds of Guatemalans infected with syphilis.

774 Guatemalan victims and relatives in 2015 launched a civil suit over the US-led experiment, which aimed to find out if penicillin could be used to prevent sexually transmitted diseases.

They claimed the experiment "subjected them or their family members to medical experiments in Guatemala without their knowledge or consent during the 1940s and 1950s."

US District Judge Theodore Chuang rejected arguments from the defense that a recent Supreme Court decision protecting foreign companies from US lawsuits over human rights abuses abroad also applied to domestic firms.

The judge said allowing the case to move forward would "promote harmony" by giving the foreign plaintiffs the opportunity to seek justice in US courts.

The unethical experiment was revealed by Doctor Susan Reverby, a professor at Wellesley College in the US.

She came across the work while researching notes left by John Charles Cutler, a public health services sexual disease specialist who headed up the experiment, following his death in 2003.

Cutler and his fellow researchers enrolled soldiers, mental patients, prostitutes, convicts and others in Guatemala for the study.

Former US president Barack Obama apologized for the experiments in 2010, while his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton described the experiments as "clearly unethical."