UK swapped to fatal US blood products to save money, minutes suggest

<span>The 1976 minutes said: ‘… the British market will accept a higher risk of hepatitis for a lower-priced product’.</span><span>Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images</span>
The 1976 minutes said: ‘… the British market will accept a higher risk of hepatitis for a lower-priced product’.Photograph: Justin Tallis/AFP/Getty Images

The British government was willing to risk infecting NHS patients to get “lower-priced” blood products, according to a document that campaigners claim proves state and corporate guilt in one of the country’s worst ever scandals.

A public inquiry into the deaths of an estimated 2,900 people infected with conditions such as HIV and hepatitis will publish its final report in May, four decades after the NHS started prescribing blood and blood products – including from drug users, prisoners and sex workers – sourced from the US.

Within the thousands of documents disclosed to the inquiry, internal company minutes have emerged that campaigners say provide the final compelling piece of evidence of the commercial greed and state negligence that destroyed thousands of lives.

In November 1976, Immuno AG, an Austrian company that was a major supplier to the Department of Health, was seeking a licence change to allow it to supply a blood product from those paid to donate in the US rather than donors without a financial incentive in Europe.

According to the minutes of a meeting of medics in the company, it had been “proven” that there was a “significantly higher hepatitis risk” from a concentrate known as Kryobulin 2 made from US plasma compared with that from Austria and Germany.

The company had concluded there was a “preference” in the UK for the cheaper US option. The memo of the meeting said: “Kryobulin 2 will be significantly cheaper than Kryobulin 1 because the British market will accept a higher risk of hepatitis for a lower-priced product. In the long-term, Kryobulin 1 will disappear from the British market.”

A Granada World in Action documentary had already reported a year earlier that drug users and people living on the streets in the US were being paid to give blood and that the donors were not consistently honest about their lifestyles and health.

General apologies for the scandal have been made by the government in recent years but Rishi Sunak has been accused of dragging his feet over compensation. About 4,500 interim compensation payments of £100,000 have been made to victims and bereaved partners but that leaves two-thirds of families without redress.

The prime minister defied calls from the inquiry chair, Sir Brian Langstaff, last year for a final compensation framework to be set up by the end of 2023 and for payments to be extended to the parents and children of those infected.

Among the victims of the contaminated blood scandal were 1,250 haemophiliacs infected with HIV and a further 2,400 to 5,000 people with such bleeding disorders who were infected with hepatitis C.

A total of 1,170 of those people have died as a result of their infections, including scores of children. They were infected through a blood product known as Factor VIII, of which Kryobulin was one of the brands.

One of those who died after being infected by Kryobulin 2 was Jonathan Evans, a carpenter from Coventry, who died at the age of 31 in 1993. His son, Jason, who was four years old when he lost his father, has spent more than a decade campaigning for justice.

Jason, 34, said: “The importance of this document is that it clearly shows in black and white that pharmaceutical companies were willing to sell products they knew to be infected with hepatitis, and that state was prepared to buy those products because they were cheaper than less risky ones.

“What I want from the inquiry is it finally to be on the official record that what happened was entirely preventable and was motivated by unethical practices. For decades the line from government was that this was an unavoidable accident that no one could have possibly have foreseen. No one did anything wrong. Most importantly, one of the lines they used for decades was that no one was ever knowingly given infected blood products, and obviously a document like this just completely blows that statement out of the water.”

Janine Jones, 59, from Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, whose brother Marc Payton died at the age of 41 in 2003 after being infected with HIV and hepatitis while a pupil at Treloar College, a boarding school in Hampshire that specialised in teaching haemophiliacs, said she was relieved that her parents had died before the new evidence emerged.

She said: “Even though most of us had some sort of inclination that this sort of stuff was going on, to actually see it in black and white, it’s quite shocking. And to be honest I’m glad that my parents aren’t alive to witness that.

“Both my parents didn’t handle everything that happened to Marc very well. Mum always blamed herself for giving him haemophilia in the first place because she was the carrier. Dad was the one that persuaded mum to let him go to Treloar’s to get him a better education. And to find out that was actually done while he was actually there, you know, I mean, he went there when he was 11 years old. So it’s quite barbaric when you think about it, really. The fact that they were doing that to children.”

The public inquiry was ordered by Theresa May in 2017 shortly after a group litigation was launched in the high court by hundreds of victims of the scandal, but the legal action has been paused to allow the inquiry, led by Langstaff, to complete its work.

In an interim report last April, Langstaff said it was clear that “wrongs were done at individual, collective and systemic levels”.

He highlighted the testimony of the chancellor and former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, who told the inquiry that the disaster was “a failure of the British state”.

Evidence has been heard at the inquiry of government documents going missing. There was a policy in the 1970s and 80s of not informing the victims who had been infected.

In France, senior officials went to jail in the 1990s over a similar scandal, but there has never been a prosecution in the UK.

The former health secretary Andy Burnham told the Commons in 2017 that he believed there had been a “criminal cover-up on an industrial scale”.

Des Collins, a lawyer representing 1,500 victims and their families, said: “My view is that the administration at the time in the 80s and early 90s realised what was happening in France and thought this isn’t going to happen in this country and pulled up the drawbridge to say ‘nothing to see here’. I think they were worried about criminal prosecutions. That led to 40 years of denial.”

Tony Farrugia, 53, who lost his father, Barry, and two uncles to infections caused by infected blood products, said he was yet to receive any redress from the government.

Farrugia, who spent his childhood in care as a result of the disaster, said: “My whole family was destroyed. It is cruel really what the government is doing in making us wait for their acknowledgment of their part in what happened.”

A government spokesperson said: “This was an appalling tragedy, and our thoughts remain with all those impacted. We are clear that justice needs to be delivered for the victims and have already accepted the moral case for compensation.

“This covers a set of extremely complex issues, and it is right we fully consider the needs of the community and the far-reaching impact that this scandal has had on their lives. The government will provide an update to parliament on next steps through an oral statement within 25 sitting days of the inquiry’s final report being published.”

Immuno AG was bought by the US company Baxter International in 1996 for $715m, which spun off its blood products business in 2015 and sold it to Shire Plc. That company was acquired by Takeda Pharmaceuticals in 2019.

A spokesperson for Takeda said: “We have the greatest sympathy with the individuals and families who have been impacted by infected blood. We fully recognise the importance of the inquiry and have cooperated with the inquiry, aiming to assist in its investigation as far as we are able by trying to provide historic information in relation to the companies concerned. We will continue to remain fully engaged with the inquiry.

‘Above all else, Takeda are committed to the safety and quality of our medicines. We have strict standards and procedures in place, and for plasma derived therapies specifically this includes rigorous donor selection, extensive plasma testing and pathogen reduction, all in full compliance with international regulatory and industry standards.

“It would not be appropriate for us to provide further comment at this time given the independent inquiry’s work finalising its report remains ongoing, and we welcome the full report that is due to be published next month.”