North America

Unauthorized Science: Estate of Henrietta Lacks Sues Pharmaceutical Company For Using Cells Without Consent

By: Tim Murphy

Impunity Watch News Staff Writer

BALTIMORE, Maryland – The estate of Henrietta Lacks, a woman whose continuously dividing cells have been used in scientific and medical research for decades, is suing the pharmaceutical company Thermo Fisher Scientific for unjust enrichment, stating that Lacks’s cells were taken without her consent and have been used without the estate’s compensation for decades.

Many may have learned about Henrietta Lacks from a high school biology class, or read about her life in Rebecca Skloot’s popular 2010 book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, which was later adapted into a film starring Oprah Winfrey. Born in 1920, Lacks was a Black woman who was undergoing treatment for cervical cancer when a doctor took and used a sample of Lacks’s cells in a petri dish without her consent. The cells, which later became known as “HeLa cells,” continued to rapidly reproduce outside the body, becoming the first human cell line to do so. Henrietta Lacks died shortly after in 1951. Neither Lacks nor her family was not compensated for her cells. 

Four of Henrietta Lacks’ grandchildren and attorney Ben Crump outside the U.S. District Court in Baltimore, Maryland. Photo courtesy of The Baltimore Sun.

It wasn’t until decades after her death that the general public became aware that the HeLa cells were originally taken and used without Lacks’s consent. While there are now policies in place to protect patients from non-consensual use of cell-samples, these regulations did not exist at the time Lacks was undergoing treatment. Regardless, companies like Thermo Fisher Scientific are still using and profiting from HeLa cells without the compensation of Lacks’s estate.

The lawsuit against Thermo Fisher Scientific seeks “the full amount of its net profits obtained by commercializing the HeLa cell line to the Estate of Henrietta Lacks.”  However, for grandson Ron Lacks, the lawsuit is not just about the money. “We will celebrate taking back control of Henrietta Lacks’ legacy,” he said. The estate also plans to file lawsuits in the following weeks against other companies that profit from the HeLa cell line.

For further information, please see:

CNN – Estate of Henrietta Lacks sues biotechnical company for nonconsensual use of her cells – 5 Oct. 2021

Live Science – Henrietta Lacks’ family sues biotech firm for use of ‘stolen’ cells – 8 Oct. 2021

NPR – Henrietta Lacks’ estate sued a company saying it used her ‘stolen’ cells for research – Oct. 4 2021

The Baltimore Sun – Family of Henrietta Lacks files suit against biotech company for using famous ‘HeLa’ cells without permission – 4 Oct. 2021

The Washington Post – 70 years ago, Henrietta Lacks’s cells were taken without consent. Now, her family wants justice – 4 Oct. 2021

Vaccine Equity: Member States at the World Trade Organization Debate Global Vaccine Access And Human Rights Commitments

By: Rishav Shah

 Impunity Watch Staff Writer

WASHINGTON D.C., United States – As governments around the globe scale up vaccination efforts amid the COVID-19 pandemic, the international community is grappling with the convergence of “vaccine nationalism” or “hoarding” and intellectual property rights resulting in gross disparities in access to vaccine supply between upper and lower-income countries.

New Director-General of the World Trade Organization Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Photo Courtesy of Reuters.

On February 5th, 2021, the World Health Organization (WHO) announced that three-quarters of the current vaccine supply has been secured and administered by 10 countries that account for 60 percent of global economic growth, while 130 countries- home to 2.5 billion people- had not received a single dose.

The potential emergence of a “vaccine apartheid” has prompted member states of the World Trade Organization (WTO) to debate the means by which to boost global vaccine access.

On October 2nd, 2020, South Africa and India submitted a proposal to suspend the WTO’s agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) for the duration of the pandemic. The effect of the proposal would be a temporary intellectual property waiver on technology, drugs, and vaccines related to the pandemic. By temporarily waiving intellectual property rights with respect to COVID-19 specific equipment, drugs, and vaccines, the proposal seeks to facilitate the transfer of technology and scientific knowledge to developing countries with the goal of ramping up global production of vaccines and increasing access beyond just the wealthiest nations.

At issue before the WTO is the larger question of whether vaccines should be treated as market commodities, or public goods.

Since October, support for the proposal has gained momentum, with all 57 members of the African Union at the World Trade Organization signing on as co-sponsors. In addition, 31 U.S. lawmakers have expressed support for the waiver, along with 115 members of the European Parliament. Notably, in February 2021, more than 400 organizations in the United States called on President Biden to endorse the waiver.

A number of high-income countries in which large pharmaceutical companies exert substantial political influence, including the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and Brazil, have argued against the waiver. This opposition is based on the argument that any waiver of patents would deter private investment, thus hampering scientific innovation. In addition, these countries contend that existing WTO regulations like the Doha Declaration of 2001 allow pharmaceutical companies to negotiate bilateral agreements with generic manufactures in order to tackle public health emergencies.

Supporters of the proposal disagree with the notion that the waiver would hamper scientific development, noting that large pharmaceutical companies received close to 10 billion USD in public funds and non-profit funding for their vaccine candidates. Their position is that the waiver will give governments of the global south an opportunity to pursue mass vaccine manufacturing by tapping into unused or under-used factories and facilities in their respective countries or anywhere in the world, instead of being priced out of vaccine purchase agreements with pharmaceutical companies

The Director-General of the WTO, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, has come out strongly against vaccine nationalism but is yet to endorse the proposal set forth by India and South Africa. She has articulated a “third-way” approach whereby large pharmaceuticals license manufacturing to countries in order to increase vaccine supply without compromising intellectual property rights. This approach would leave control over production limits with large pharmaceutical companies.

Some of the countries in opposition to the waiver-Canada, Australia, Switzerland, Japan, and others- have pledged to donate financial resources and surplus vaccines to the UN-backed COVID-19 Vaccines Global Access Facility (COVAX).  COVAX is a program designed to boost the distribution of vaccines to low-income countries. While donations to COVAX will improve vaccine access, COVAX aims to vaccinate only 20% of every participating country’s population. This is far from what is needed to achieve herd immunities in lower-income countries that are relying heavily on COVAX as their primary vaccine distributor.

In the months since the impasse at the WTO, another 2.65 million people have succumbed to the virus globally. The wealthy countries in opposition to a temporary suspension of the TRIPS agreement have made their case in favor of private enterprise, but are yet to outline an approach that would remedy the issue of vaccine hoarding and curb the spread of COVID-19 in countries with limited access to the vaccine. The decision to treat a vaccine that has been largely subsidized by taxpayer money and public funds as a private market commodity– rather than a public good– will have unconscionable human rights implications. Without the temporary suspension of the WTO TRIPS agreement allowing poorer nations to produce the vaccines widely, the vast majority of the global vaccine supply will remain disproportionately concentrated in the world’s wealthiest countries, leaving lower-income countries to be ravaged by mass fatalities from the virus.

For further information, please see:

Al-Jazeera – Patently Unfair: Can Waivers Help Solve Vaccine Inequality? – 1 Mar. 2021

Euronews – Rich countries must stop ‘vaccine apartheid’ – 11 Mar. 2021

Foreign Policy – Rich vs. Poor (Again) at WTO – 10 Mar.2021

Reuters – Incoming WTO head warns ‘vaccine nationalism’ could slow pandemic recovery – 15 Feb. 2021

World Health Organization – WHO Director-General’s opening remarks at the media briefing on COVID-19 – 5 Feb. 2021

IACHR Condemns Argentina for Investigation of the 1994 Terrorist Attack

By: Lauren Della Stua 

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

WASHINGTON, D.C – Nearly 27 years after the terrorist attack at the Argentine Israeli Mutual Association (AMIA), the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) places responsibility on Argentina.

Rescue workers search the rubble of the 1994 Bombing. Photo Courtesy of CNN News.

On July 18, 1994, Iranian backed Hezballah terrorists bombed the AMIA, killing 85 people and injuring over 300 people. The attack was followed by numerous warnings, as well as the 1992 suicide bombers attack on the Israeli Embassy in Argentina.  Despite the attack taking place in Argentina, the bombing has been associated with accusations of Argentinian cover-ups. In 2004, suspects of the cover-up were found not guilty.  Shortly after the federal judge overseeing the case, Juan Jose Galeano was removed from his position for his grave mishandling of the case.

In 2006, a new prosecutor, Alberto Nisman, was appointed to investigate the bombing and accused members of the Iranian Government and Hezbollah. Nisman also formally accused Christina Fernandez de Kirchner, former President of Argentina, of covering up Iran’s involvement in the attack. In 2015, hours before Nisman was going to testify against the President, he was murdered. Despite the lead prosecutor’s untimely murder, Kirchner is facing trial for treason based on her involvement in the cover-up.

In February 2019, the federal judge, Galeano, 2 prosecutors, a police commissioner, and several intelligence agency members were found guilty of covering up evidence and paying off witnesses in order to delay the case.

IACHR decided to investigate the alleged cover-up and divided its investigation into three parts: (1) Argentina’s investigation under the Federal Criminal and Correctional Court No. 9 from 1994-2005, (2) AMIA Attack Investigation Prosecution Unit (UFI AMIA) from 2005 to present, and (3) judicial cover-ups.

On March 25, 2021, following their investigation, the IACHR issued a Report on the Merits discussing Argentina’s responsibility and possible reparations. As to responsibility, IACHR noted that Argentina had a responsibility to adopt safety measures after they had knowledge of such a real threat. Furthermore, Argentina, although not necessarily willfully, declined to take protective measures of the Jewish community, and therefore violated of the right to equality and non-discrimination.

As to the Federal Criminal Court, IACHR concluded that the mishandling of evidence, forced hypothesis, and irregularities culminated to a cover-up. The second investigation, led by Nisman, uncovered more flaws of the Federal Criminal Court. For example, undue delays, improper handling of evidence, lack of expert testimony, and uncorroborated evidence. Furthermore, the State violated the right of the families to access information pertinent to the case by claiming it is classified. Lastly, the IACHR also found the State violated the right to psychological and moral integrity of the victims’ families by delaying and covering up the investigation.

The Merit Report gave 6 recommendations for the State. The recommendations included completing the investigation and punishing those responsible, paying reparations to the victim’s and their families, creating policies to manage the budget of the intelligence agencies, creating educational programs related to fighting terrorism, granting access to all information related to the case and investigation, and creating measures to prevent future attacks based on discrimination. 

To this day, the terrorist attacks have not been fully investigated nor have the accused all been brought to justice. However, the Merit Report will hopefully shed light on the corruption and prevent future attacks on the minority communities.

For further information, please see:

ABC News – 8 found guilty in cover-up of deadly 1994 bombing of Jewish center in Argentina – 28 Feb. 2019

AJC Global Voice – 25 Years since the AMIA Bombing: Hezbollah and Antisemitism – 17 July 2019

BBC News – Argentina prosecutor Alberto Nisman was killed, judge rules – 27 Dec. 2017

BBC News – Argentina Marks 1994 Bomb Attack – 18 July 2006

CNN News – Prosecutor in 1994 Buenos Aires Bombing Found Dead – 27 Dec. 2017

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights – IACHR refers case on Argentina to the Inter-American Court – 26 Mar. 2021

Native American Communities Left in the Dark During COVID-19 Pandemic

By: Elizabeth Maugeri

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

WASHINGTON D.C., United States of America – Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, Native American communities have been feeling the brunt of the impact. The Trump Administration focused heavily on policies that benefitted larger private companies, leaving inadequate funding for tribal governments. However, under the transition to the Biden Administration, many Native American communities are hopeful.

An IHS hospital. Many, like this one, are located in isolated areas, causing difficulties hiring staff and supporting services. Photo Courtesy of The New York Times.

The Indian Health Service (IHS), the agency that provides hospital and health services to tribal communities, has long been criticized for its failure to provide effective healthcare to Native Americans. The IHS suffers from funding and supplies shortages, which the pandemic has only exasperated.

Native Americans visiting IHS hospitals with COVID-19 symptoms were handed inhalers and received instructions to simply “get rest.” During the commotion between the federal government and the state governments in regard to proper funding and access to supplies, IHS hospitals fell by the wayside. These hospitals lacked suitable staffing and were forced to wait months for life-saving equipment, causing the death rate of Native Americans to soar.

The Navajo Nation has been affected in a higher proportion than other tribes with over five hundred deaths recorded thus far. In the beginning months of the pandemic, positivity rates for IHS patients from the Navajo Nation in Phoenix reached about 20% as compared to a 7% positivity rate nationally during that same time. Although the positivity rate has decreased, it still remains about three times higher than the national average.

The positivity rates for Native Americans in states like Arizona and New Mexico saw heights of up to 30%, even though these communities make up only a small portion of the population.

Many health officials in IHS hospitals even took to social media to beg for personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizer, and other equipment. The hospitals relied on donations as their main source for supplies. Even when the donated equipment did arrive, many of the staff realized that they never received the proper training and that they lacked understanding of how to use the equipment.

Even worse, some of the PPE that Native communities received was inadequate to help protect those using it. In an email to tribal officials, one IHS worker wrote, “we can get you N95s (they’re expired, but the C.D.C. and I.H.S. say that they’re still OK to use).” Many of the IHS health officials were left feeling as though they were the last priority, but they still made use of what they were able to receive.

Native communities have lacked proper healthcare service for years. The U.S. government has failed to provide sufficient funding and services for the healthcare system it helped create for Native Americans. Tribal elders, seen as the most important members of the community, suffered greatly at the hands of their untreated underlying health conditions. Despite this, Native Americans look to President Biden with hopes he will provide their communities with much-needed relief.

For further information, please see:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – COVID-19 Mortality Among American Indian and Alaska Native Persons – 14 States, January-June 2020,  11 Dec. 2020

Indian Health Service – Coronavirus (COVID-19) – 28 Feb. 2021

The New York Times – Native Americans ‘Left Out in the Cold’ Under Trump Press Biden for Action – 18 Feb. 2021

The New York Times – Native Americans Reliant on Hospital Feel Abandoned by U.S. During Pandemic – 3 Jan. 2021

The New York Times – Pandemic Highlights Deep-Rooted Problems in Indian Health Service – 3 Jan. 2021

Unaccompanied Migrant Children Continue to be Detained at the U.S. Southern Border

By: Ryan Ockenden

Impunity Watch Staff Writer

CARRIZO SPRINGS, United States of America – Within recent weeks, thousands of unaccompanied migrant children have arrived at the southern border of the United States. President Biden has agreed not to turn back unaccompanied minors in spite of Title 42, the emergency public health law invoked by former President Trump, which authorized turning away the majority of migrants due to COVID-19.

Trailers previously used to house oil workers have been turned into bunks for the unaccompanied migrant minors. Photo Courtesy of Eric Gay and Associated.

Although President Biden promised to take a more humane approach to unauthorized immigration, his administration has re-opened the controversial Carrizo Springs detention center, to house these unaccompanied minors. According to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act, minors cannot be held by border agents at these detention centers for more than 72 hours. After 72 hours, the unaccompanied minors must then be transferred to shelters while the Office of Refugee Resettlement can locate their family members in the United States and arrange for their release to the families. The Biden administration is not following this law. Due to the lag in processing, children are being held for much longer in detention centers like that in Carrizo Springs. Once unaccompanied minors arrive at the shelters, many of them are not being released to their families, despite the families being located, because of the requirement that the minors quarantine for ten days and test negative twice for COVID-19.

In the past, the Inter-American Court and Commission of Human Rights (IACHR) has asserted that detentions at the U.S. southern border must be as brief as possible. Further, the IACHR has stressed that the best interests of a child are the primary consideration in any action taken in relation to the child. COVID-19 has posed a confounding problem for the American government: whether to prioritize public health; or, to get children out of shelters and into their families’ possession as soon as possible.

Many human rights advocates feel that the Biden administration is reverting to the perverse policies under former President Trump. The advocates believe the vulnerable children are being held in unsafe facilities that do not meet their best interest: being sent to safety with their family members in the United States.

In the face of a health crisis, the Biden administration will continue to face two issues: (1) ensuring children are not held for more than 72 hours in Border Patrol custody; and, (2) whether prioritizing public health and quarantine policies over reuniting unaccompanied minors with their families is appropriate. On the first issue, the Biden administration has said that they do not want to keep the facilities open long, but they have no current alternative since they did not inherit a system that manages COVID-19 and the influx of unaccompanied minor migrants. On the second issue, the Biden administration has shown no indication to change their policy, raising questions about whether they are seeking the best interests of the children.

For further information, please see:

Amnesty International – Carrizo Springs detention facility cannot become status quo for children – 23 Feb. 2021

NPR – Biden Pledges That Border Shelter For Teens ‘Won’t Stay Open Very Long’ – 25 Feb. 2021

Pacific Standard – What laws protect detained children from mistreatment on the border? – 24 Jun. 2019

Politico – Biden promised a ‘fair and humane’ immigration overhaul. What he inherited is a mess – 26 Feb. 2021

The New York Times – Thousands of Migrant Children Detained in Resumption of Trump-Era Policies – 26 Feb. 2021