A French court on Friday convicted three former government doctors, including the director of the National Blood Transfusion Center, of knowingly distributing AIDS-infected blood products to hemophiliac patients, resulting in as many as 1,000 new cases of infection and 256 deaths.
After a trial that sparked a national political scandal reaching the highest levels of the Socialist government, the three-judge panel sentenced two of the convicted physicians, former transfusion center director Dr. Michel Garretta, 48, and his associate, Dr. Jean-Pierre Allain, 43, to prison.
“To my knowledge,” said Dr. Griffith D. Thomas, a Los Angeles physician and attorney associated with several AIDS-related malpractice lawsuits, “it is the first time that physicians anywhere in the world have been sentenced to jail for a conviction of negligence in AIDS treatment.”
Garretta, traveling in the United States when the verdict was announced, was sentenced to the maximum term of four years. Allain was sentenced to two years.
Another former official with the French Health Ministry, Jacques Roux, 69, was given a four-year suspended sentence. A fourth man, former public health laboratory director Dr. Robert Netter, 65, was acquitted.
The judges also assessed a total of $1.8 million in fines, to be distributed among civil plaintiffs in the case, after ruling that the doctors continued to supply contaminated blood products to French hemophiliacs at least six months after an American blood-screening test and a heat-treatment process, which prevents contamination, were perfected and introduced in other countries.
In their verdict, which came two months after the conclusion of an emotional, heavily guarded trial at the Palais de Justice here, the judges placed the brunt of the blame on Garretta. A feisty, dark-haired physician, Garretta has publicly insisted that the responsibility should be shared by his superiors, including prominent Socialist politician Laurent Fabius, French prime minister at the time the contamination occurred.
It was Garretta, the court said in its verdict, “who was incontestably the inspiration and the mastermind of the policy” that resulted in AIDS virus contamination.
The court did not comment on potentially more serious charges, raised by civil parties in the case, that Garretta and his associates were motivated by a sense of nationalism, delaying the implementation of the American screening and heat-treatment processes until a French equivalent could be developed.
The case centered on six months in 1985 when the methodology of AIDS-contaminated blood product identification and purification was developed. In March, 1985, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved a test to screen for antibodies to the virus that causes AIDS. The test enabled blood banks to check donors, recipients and existing blood supplies for the virus, known as HIV.
About the same time, a heat treatment developed in the United States had won near-universal acceptance in the international medical community as an effective way to deactivate the AIDS virus in blood products, including the blood-clotting proteins required by hemophiliacs.
Since the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, hemophiliacs have been at the top of the high-risk category because they require regular transfusions of pooled blood products to provide the Factor 8 blood-clotting agent that they lack.
Despite the widely circulated knowledge of new methods, Garretta and his associates continued ordering the distribution of existing French blood supplies without submitting them first to either the screening or the heat treatment.
According to trial testimony, the decision to exhaust existing French blood supplies rather than buy safe, heat-treated, American products was motivated in part by economic considerations.
“I should have bought massive amounts of heat-treated blood from abroad,” Garretta testified. “I didn’t do it. It was a mistake. I’m aware of it today.”
The doctors were tried under French fraud laws for knowingly failing to inform their patients of the potential dangers of the blood products. Authorities said more serious criminal charges would be difficult to prove because, without a prior blood screening test to determine when a hemophiliac was infected, it would be impossible to show that the infection occurred during the critical six-month period covered in the case.
Families of the infected hemophiliacs were disappointed and angry. They had urged that the doctors be tried on criminal charges that they “poisoned” their patients.
Said Agnes Gaudin, mother of two infected sons: “The other day, somebody who murdered another person was sentenced to 10 years in prison. Dr. Garretta murdered 256 people, and he got only four years.”
Ludovic Bouchet, 17, a hemophiliac who contracted HIV from a contaminated blood transfusion, agreed, arguing that Garretta’s jail sentence was inadequate and that other responsible government officials should have been implicated.
“Four years is nothing,” said Bouchet, one of the several dozen AIDS-infected hemophiliacs who regularly attended the trial.