COURT BATTLES LAUNCHED OVER ANTI-AIDS DRUG
By Neville Hodgkinson
The Sunday Times (London) 30 Jan. 1994
It has long been billed as the great hope for HIV sufferers the wonder
drug AZT which, it is claimed, can slow the progression towards AIDS. Now
its manufacturer, the Wellcome company, is facing a legal case that could
blow apart a multi-billion-pound industry.
For Sue Threakall, however, whose husband died after taking AZT, a writ
served on her behalf last week was more than an attempt to win damages.
She said it represented a chance to end what may be a terrible medical
blunder endangering thousands of lives.
Threakall, 40, a former deputy head teacher, has begun her legal action
against Wellcome and the National Institute of Allergic and Infectious
Diseases (NIAID), the United States government body that tested and promoted
Supported by legal aid, she is alleging there was a lack of care in
the researching, marketing and prescribing of the drug which, she says,
contributed to her husband's death. The writ is intended as the start of
a group action in Britain, with co-ordinated litigation in other countries.
Threakall, from Birmingham, is convinced that far from helping her HIV-positive
husband, Bob, a 47-year-old haemophiliac, AZT damaged his immune system
so badly that even after he stopped taking it he went into an irreversible
He tested positive for HIV in 1985, but continued working full-time
as a civil servant for four years. He was also involved in a campaign to
win compensation for haemophiliacs who had become HIV-positive as a result
of treatment for their blood disorder. "He was gregarious, leading
a full and busy life," Threakall said.
In August 1989 he was put on AZT, a toxic drug thought to be helpful
in fighting HIV, which most doctors believe is the cause of AIDS. His wife
believes the decision effectively ended his life.
A letter dated August 25 from the haemophilia unit where he was treated
acknowledged that "this gentleman is feeling reasonably well"
but added that "in view of the recent study concerning the beneficial
effects of AZT in HIV-positive people" he had been started on daily
The study mentioned was co-ordinated by NIAID in collaboration with
Wellcome, whose sales of AZT totalled £ 270m last year. It was stopped
early on the grounds that it had "clearly demonstrated" benefit,
but its scientific validity has since been challenged.
A longer trial, conducted by government researchers in Britain and France,
failed to find any benefit from AZT in HIV-positive people in fact, sickness
and death were higher in the treated group. Detailed analysis of the study,
due to be published in The Lancet next month, is expected to confirm this
Threakall says her husband's health deteriorated from the time he was
started on AZT. By December 1989 he was taking more time off work and did
less of everything else. "Life here was absolute hell he was so miserable.
I was trying to hold down my own job, but I gave it up the following summer
because it was getting impossible to cope," she said.
"Our social life stopped. Bob changed from being a happy, gentle
man to someone who didn't want anyone near him. It became a nightmare trying
to feed him. I would make him a Marmite sandwich with the crusts taken
off and he would spend an hour chewing it he became virtually anorexic.
He was ashamed at being so thin."
At his request, the AZT treatment was stopped in July 1990. "I
think it was too late," Threakall said. "He was so ill by then
and so undernourished that he continued to go downhill."
She has since found that doctors have reported "worrying"
evidence that blood and bone-marrow changes in long-term AZT treatment
"seem not to be readily reversed when the drug is withdrawn".
He was admitted to hospital seven months later, where he died after
three days "confused, delirious, wasted, constant diarrhoea, unable
to swallow and with hardly any normal lung tissue left", according
to his wife. His symptoms were attributed by doctors to HIV, although he
was never diagnosed as suffering from full-blown AIDS.
The following April, after reading a report in The Sunday Times that
a group of American scientists was challenging the theory that HIV causes
AIDS, Threakall wrote to Dr Peter Duesberg, a professor of molecular biology
at the University of California at Berkeley and leading member of the group.
Duesberg, who has described AZT as causing "AIDS by prescription",
wrote back enclosing a package of material on AIDS and HIV that was to
start Threakall on a journey of discovery that led to her decision to sue.
"I know I am right about what happened to Bob, and if the drug
is toxic, what about all the other people who are taking it?" she
Her solicitor, Graham Ross, of JKeith Park and Co, in Liverpool, has
received instructions in seven more cases. Six involve haemophiliacs and
one is from a homosexual man suing over the death of his partner.
Ross said that he had become increasingly concerned about the death
of Bob Threakall. "I have seen a lot that shows this case is strong.
This would mean there has been a horror story in the treatment of HIV-positive
individuals; and if there is a horror story, it will continue until the
truth comes out."
Wellcome said it would defend the case. *
LINDSEY, 2 IN ORDEAL OF PAIN
Steve and Cheryl Nagel, from Minneapolis, are also planning to sue Wellcome.
Their adopted daughter, Lindsey, was born in Romania in October 1990 and
brought back to America that year. They found within a few weeks that she
She was put on Retrovir syrup AZT, as marketed for children's use for
22 months. "By the grace of God, we determined that it was making
her ill," Steve Nagel said.
For the first 18 months her health declined. She did not eat properly,
suffered nausea and diarrhoea and became hyperactive. Then, for three months
in 1992, the two-year-old "would wake up in the middle of the night
grabbing her knees and screeching; she was in severe pain". They consulted
Dr Peter Duesberg, who says HIV does not cause Aids, and he told them they
should take Lindsey off AZT. "Two days later, the pains stopped, and
have never come back since," said her father. *