National

Green Cross chiefs receive prison terms for HIV scandal

OSAKA — Three former presidents of the now-defunct Green Cross Corp. were sentenced Thursday to prison terms ranging from 16 months to two years for professional negligence resulting in death in connection with the firm’s sales of HIV-tainted blood products.
The Osaka District Court sentenced Renzo Matsushita, 79, to two years; Tadakazu Suyama, 72, to 18 months; and Takehiko Kawano, 69, to 16 months. All three filed appeals with the Osaka High Court and were released on bail later in the day by putting up between 26 million yen and 30 million yen each.
Thursday’s ruling is the first in the criminal trials over the HIV debacle, in which 1,430 hemophiliacs and other patients were exposed to the virus that leads to AIDS through unpasteurized blood products.
The unheated products were distributed in the 1980s — after their risks were reported and despite the availability of safe, pasteurized alternatives.
The scandal involved bureaucrats, doctors and drug firms. Of those infected, 493 had died of AIDS as of the end of October 1997, the most recent figures from the Health and Welfare Ministry.
Prosecutors demanded a three-year prison term for Matsushita, a former official of the Health and Welfare Ministry, and 30-month terms for Suyama and Kawano. Matsushita was president at the time the tainted blood was distributed, while Suyama was vice president and Kawano senior managing director.
Thursday’s ruling specifically covers the death of a male patient afflicted with a liver disease.
In handing down the ruling, presiding Judge Mikio Miyoshi said the three could have prevented the patient’s death since they recognized the HIV risk posed by their products.
They committed gross negligence by placing more importance on profits for their company, even though they could have prevented the spread of HIV by recalling the unheated blood products after a safe product was put on the market on Jan. 10, 1986, he said.
The court said the executives continued selling Christmassin, an unpasteurized blood product, after their company began marketing a safe, heat-treated product approved in December 1985, even though they knew the older product carried an HIV risk.
The continued distribution of the potentially dangerous blood products in January and February the following year caused the liver disease patient to die in 1995, it said.
The patient was administered three injections of unheated Green Cross blood products in April 1986, when he underwent an endoscopic operation at Osaka Medical College Hospital. He died of AIDS in December 1995.
Green Cross, which was absorbed by Yoshitomi Pharmaceuticals Industries Ltd. in April 1998, controlled the largest share of the domestic market for blood products designed for treating hemophiliacs at the time the blood products were administered.The three defendants had pleaded guilty but claimed the company alone could not decide to recall the product without receiving instructions from the Health and Welfare Ministry.
They claimed that the most up-to-date medical knowledge in Japan at the time had not been adequately disseminated to medical practitioners and the pharmaceutical industry, and asked the court for leniency in light of that structural flaw.
But the court said drugmakers must take the initial and final responsibility for the safety of their products, and Green Cross could have discovered the latest information about AIDS through its subsidiary in the United States.
Even if a Health Ministry official also committed negligence or a medical institution did likewise by administering unheated blood products, this would do little to reduce the defendants’ guilt, the court said.
After Thursday’s ruling, the widow of the liver patient, who asked not to be named, said: “I don’t understand why their sentences are so light. They may finish suffering their punishment in two years or so, but the bereaved family must carry on forever.”
Ryuhei Kawada, who played a key role in the civil suit’s victory after going public as having contracted HIV through a tainted product, said he was angry and surprised because the sentences were shorter than those demanded by prosecutors, which he said were too short to begin with.
Thursday’s ruling is expected to influence the courses of two other trials before the Tokyo District Court.
The defendants in those trials — hemophilia expert Takeshi Abe, 83, a former vice president of Teikyo University, and Akihito Matsumura, 58, former chief of the Health and Welfare Ministry’s now-defunct Biologics and Antibiotics Division — have pleaded not guilty to professional negligence.
Abe stands accused of instructing subordinate doctors at Teikyo University Hospital in Tokyo to give a hemophiliac unheated blood coagulants that may have been tainted with HIV between May and June 1985. The patient died of AIDS in December 1991.
Abe served as chief of the internal medicine first division of the hospital between 1971 and 1987. Patients treated by that section included hemophiliacs.
Matsumura was charged with professional negligence in connection with both the 1991 and 1995 deaths.
In civil suits, the government and the five drugmakers, including Green Cross, which allowed the infection to spread through the tainted blood products, agreed in a 1996 court-mediated compromise to pay 45 million yen to each victim as well as monthly payments of 150,000 yen to each individual who develops full-blown AIDS.
So far, about 1,300 victims have agreed to the settlement.
It was murder: Kan>
Former Health and Welfare Minister Naoto Kan, whose popularity increased after he reveled in 1996 that bureaucrats were involved in the scandal of HIV-tainted blood products, said Thursday that the three former pharmaceutical company presidents tried for professional negligence in the case should have been charged with murder.
He also welcomed Thursday’s ruling by the Osaka District Court, which sentenced the three to prison terms.
“I consider the ruling only natural, but I still welcome it,” Kan, now the policy affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan, told reporters in Tokyo.
But he also said the three men should have been found guilty of homicide, not “death through professional negligence,” as the Osaka District Court ruled.
“For the sake of company profits, they left the AIDS threat unattended, although they were fully aware of the situation,” Kan said, “I have renewed my determination to pursue fundamental reforms of the country’s medical administration.”
At the height of the HIV scandal, Kan, as health minister, ordered ministry personnel to conduct an internal investigation that turned up files indicating bureaucrats were aware that tainted blood products, which were under their jurisdiction, were being distributed and that safer alternatives were available.