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Connecting the Dots to Public Awareness of Public Health and Safety in Biotechnology

Tarrytown 2011 Conference

By Becky McClain, July 26, 2011

Thank you, Osagie, Richard Hayes and staff of CGS for this invitation to provide my thoughts at Tarrytown 2011. 

I stand here today as career molecular biologist turned activist because of ethical and moral concern. 

While working in an embryonic stem cell lab at Pfizer, the largest pharmaceutical company in the world, I reported ongoing public health and safety concernsto management.   I soon began to experience retaliation that escalated into hostility.  Soon there after, I became the victim of the very safety violations I was trying to prevent. An untrained lab worker used a human infectious genetically engineered virus, without suitable biocontainment, on my personal workspace. I began experiencing periodic paralysis and spinal pain – a result consistent with the DNA- coded effects that had been engineered within the pathogen. 

This experience of walking through the fire, of being both a whistleblower and injured worker, provided me a unique view into the social and political cultures within the biotech industry, which hinder human rights and public health and safety.  I hope my perspective today can contribute to connecting the dots at Tarrytown to enhance the movement for better protection for both workers and the public. 

In April 2010, an eight-member jury in the state of Connecticut unanimously ruled that Pfizer had retaliated against me and engaged in willful, malicious indifference toward my speech concerning public health and safety.

This unanimous decision by a jury is very significant.  It provides a clear example that if the general public ever does becomes aware of what is truly going on in the biotech industry … there will be an outcry… the public will quickly realize that self-policing and the lack of oversight within the biotech community are not providing adequate protections for their safety, their family’s safety or the public’s safety.  So, my trial outcome should give us all hope and confidence that if we engage in a well orchestrated and strategic campaign towards public awareness, we could make a significant impact on the critical health and human rights concerns which underlie advanced biotechnologies.  

Now I say “well-orchestrated campaign” for a reason.  Because despite my story and other stories of injured biotech workers who have been made ill, maimed or killed, we still face immense challenges to inform the public.  The one challenge we all face in common is the state of affairs brought about by a biotech industry, riddled with conflicts of interest and left to regulate itself.  Networked with various businesses, academic institutes and governments, this complex of economic and political drivers makes for a formidable challenge to any would-be whistleblower, injured worker or concerned citizen who makes attempts to play fair in bringing about safety or social and human rights balances. 

One of the first barriers is finding affordable and qualified legal help in a timely manner. The lack of experts and economic disparity make these high-risk cases. And although I am extremely grateful for winning my lawsuit, the economic reward, if it ever does come, comes after a long difficult battle. Many would-be whistleblowers would not be able to endure the economic hardships it requires. With all these limitations, the vast majority of legitimate claims cannot be brought to justice or to the public’s eye. 

Government agencies use revolving door policies to establish special economic relationships with business. This creates certain boundaries that will not be crossed at the expense of individual and public health rights, even to the point of using disingenuous tactics.  For example, during an interview session with OSHA, I was guaranteed that my notebooks were safe as I left for a lunch break.  But while away, the OSHA investigator, nonetheless, made a copy of all my attorney-client privileged documents from my personal notebook without my consent or knowledge.  And then later in the investigation, OSHA demanded a settlement offer from me, only to use it afterwards to write in their report that I had a character flaw because I was out to get money.  OSHA refused to follow statutory procedure, never performed a safety inspection or addressed my serious safety complaints even with documents in hand showing serious biocontainment issues, exposures and illnesses in our department at Pfizer.  The end result is that government agencies act in capricious ways, providing no consistent platform or protection for injured workers or whistleblowers to speak freely and inform the public.

And even more egregious against human rights, both federal OSHA and CT-Worker Compensation established terrible precedents of denying the disclosure of exposure records. These actions eliminated my rights and biotech workers rights to independent directed medical care and to any remedy through workers compensation. Consequently, injured biotech workers, like David Bell, who incur hundreds of thousands of dollars of medical bills, are forced onto social security disability at a cost to the public instead of the employer who engaged in unsafe work practices.

I also discovered walls of resistance amongst biomedical researchers within prominent academic institutes who partnered with Pfizer.  Comparable to the overt anti-biotech crusaders who make grandiose and false claims that all genetically engineered products are harmful, these scientists, who come bearing credentials and big salaries, take the opposite extreme.  They make overt statements claiming that all genetically engineered viruses used in BL2 labs are engineered to be safe and cannot cause harm, statements that are patently irresponsible and unfounded in science.

The biomedical industry has shown great confidence in using strategic alliances to manage their “dirty laundry” while moving on the fast track to “profits over safety” in the name of innovation. And why shouldn’t this industry proceed with confidence?  When Pfizer received a $1.37 Million dollar verdict against them at the conclusion of my trial, their stock didn’t drop to reflect any consequences.  In fact, soon after, many biomedical universities lined up with hands open wide in acceptance of $100 million dollar research deals with Pfizer.  The State of Connecticut ignored pubic health and safety concerns even after a Connecticut jury agreed that my safety complaints where of serious public concern.  Instead the state invited a Pfizer manager, who had been intimately involved in the retaliation and safety abuses in my case, to give a talk at this year’s STEMCONN 2011 conference on the topic of “Stem Cells for Profit?”

With injured workers and whistleblowers up against significant legal and economic roadblocks, created through a web of conflicts of interest, and the rare legal victories not changing bad behavior, we need to engage in a collective and strategic campaign to protect public health and safety. 

The facial expressions from the jurors at my trial, told a story of disbelief and shock.  I have confidence that with effective public awareness, the health and safety and human rights concerns within advanced biotechnologies will begin to be addressed.  So if we are to connect the dots, let us connect with open dialogue and let us network to build capacity and to form a strategic framework to increase public awareness.