Hidden world of clinical trials in Malaysia


Some years ago, I read a John Le Carre novel, The Constant Gardener, later turned into a motion picture, about the intrigue surrounding a multinational company conducting clinical trials on unsuspecting Africans who were used as guinea pigs to test a remedy for tuberculosis.

In the Afterword to his book, Le Carre observed: “As my journey through the pharmaceutical jungle progressed, I came to realise that, by comparison with the reality, my story was as tame as a holiday postcard.”

But that was not why I wrote this piece (below) on clinical trials in Malaysia though Le Carre’s story has remained in the deeper recesses of my mind. What prompted me though was a pamphlet from InvestPenang, the Penang state government’s investment arm, which slipped into my hands. The pamphlet was obviously not intended for ordinary Malaysians like you and me.

From the language used, it was clear that the message was aimed at potential foreign BigPharma investors who might be interested in carrying out clinical trials in Malaysia, among other things. The pamphlet touted the country’s ‘‘ethnically heterogeneous” population and proudly claimed that ‘’Malaysians are still drug naïve”. I kid you not…

Everyone I called in the private sector seemed reluctant to divulge much information. It was as if there was an unwritten oath of secrecy behind such trials. Company officials and private hospital staff seemed to be well-schooled in the art of avoiding prying eyes.

When I called up Pfizer’s top officials in Malaysia to ask if it was indeed true that Viagra was being tested on children with pulmonary arterial hypertension (high pressure in the blood vessels to the lungs), they were tight-lipped and reluctant to sing.

Finally, posing as the parent of such a child, I was able to find out from Info Kinetics, the company carrying out the trials, that a dozen children are believed to be involved in the ongoing trials. I was told that the possible side effects of Viagra on the subjects include bluish vision similar ‘‘to the effect of (seeing through) a blue filter”, depending on the dosage given.

In this piece for IPS, I tried to lift the cloak of secrecy that shrouds clinical trials in Malaysia.

PENANG, Malaysia, Feb 2 (IPS) – Eyeing the expanding market for clinical research in the region, Malaysia is trying to position itself as an ideal place for pharmaceutical majors to conduct clinical trials. But critics worry about weak safeguards and poor enforceability of existing regulations.

Indeed, the local population’s lack of sophistication about clinical trials appears to be one of the selling points. Full article: Rat race on for clinical trials bonanza

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