Four doctors, the Canadian Red Cross Society and an American drug company have been criminally charged in what has been called the worst public health disaster in Canada.
More charges may be on the way as the massive criminal investigation led by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s blood task force continues.
Two of the four men charged were senior federal health officials in the 1980s, when thousands of Canadians received blood transfusions and blood products that were contaminated with HIV and hepatitis C.
The others charged are a former director of the Red Cross blood transfusion service and a former executive of Armour Pharmaceutical Co.
It is estimated that about 2,000 people have died and 10,000 people were either directly or indirectly infected after receiving tainted blood or blood products before the mid-1980s.
For the victims â€” those whose lives will be cut short because they contracted HIV or hepatitis C from tainted blood â€” news of the charges did not bring much jubilation.
“It’s nice to see they are finally holding somebody responsible,” said Daryl Thomson, 33, who was infected with hepatitis C as a teenager in the 1980s.
The Oakville resident listened to the RCMP read the charges out yesterday, with his father Robert, at a Toronto news conference.
“But I’d like to see them focus on compensating some of the victims,” said Thomson, who lives at home and isn’t able to work. He doesn’t receive federal compensation because he was infected prior to 1986.
Also at the news conference was hemophiliac Mark Bulbrook, 46, infected with both HIV and hepatitis C. He thought of his brother Michael who died after receiving tainted blood.
“We were harmed in such a way that could’ve been prevented,” he said. “I wouldn’t call this a joyous occasion by any stretch. An emotional moment in my life was when my brother died of AIDS-related lymphoma.”
However, Bulbrook is glad that he has lived to see the day that charges were laid. “I had no illusions that I would live to see the outcome. To be able to be here today, to see the outcome of this process, is gratifying.”
After a five-year investigation, charged are:
Dr. John Furesz, 75, of Ottawa, with three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one count of common nuisance by endangering the public. He is the former director of the bureau of biologics at the federal government’s health protection branch.
Dr. Wark Boucher, 62, of Nepean, Ont., with three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one count of common nuisance by endangering the public. He is the former chief of the blood products division of the bureau of biologics at the federal health protection branch and still works with Health Canada, in the health care acquired infections division, which advises on infections caused by transfusions and transplant operations.
Dr. Roger Perrault, 66, of Ottawa with three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and seven counts of common nuisance by endangering the public. He is an ex-director of the Canadian Red Cross Society’s blood transfusion service.
Dr. Michael Rodell, 70, of Bala Cynwid, Pa., with three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one count of common nuisance by endangering the public.
He is the former vice-president of scientific and regulatory affairs at Armour Pharmaceutical.
The Canadian Red Cross Society, through its former blood transfusion and blood donor recruitment services, with six counts of common nuisance by endangering the public.
Armour Pharmaceutical Co., based in Bridgewater, N.J., with three counts of criminal negligence causing bodily harm and one count of common nuisance by endangering the public, as well as one count of failure to notify under the federal Food and Drugs Act.
One of the charges criminal negligence causing bodily harm carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. A charge of common nuisance could mean up to two years in jail.
The charges were laid by a summons on Tuesday. “We are satisfied we know the identity of the people, that they won’t repeat the offence and they are not a flight risk,” said Superintendent Rod Knecht, the officer in charge of the Toronto-based blood task force.
Armour Pharmaceutical responded to the charges yesterday.
“The criminal charges brought today by the RCMP against Armour Pharmaceutical Company and Dr. Michael Rodell are unfair and unjustified, and Armour will now vigorously defend its actions in the Canadian justice system,” the company said through James Deeks of Toronto’s Primary Counsel Group Inc.
“Armour’s actions and those of its employees almost 20 years ago viewed in the context of the time, rather than with the benefit of 20-20 hindsight constituted the very best efforts of committed scientists and good, law-abiding people.
“When all facts are considered, and this matter is concluded, Armour is convinced that justice will be done, and that the company and Dr. Rodell will be acquitted on all charges against them.
Reached by the Star at his home and office in Pennsylvania, Rodell refused to comment ” I am aware of it (the charges) and obviously, I will not comment.”
The three Ottawa-area physicians were unavailable for comment.
Perrault’s lawyer, Edward Greenspan, said his client is “no criminal” and will fight the charges.
“The events were a great tragedy in Canadian history and it’s natural to want to assign blame. But it’s a tragedy that criminal charges have been laid. My client is not a criminal and he’ll fight these charges,” Greenspan said.
Perreault effectively founded the Red Cross’s blood transfusion service in the 1960s. “There was no national blood transfusion service in Canada before then,” one person with direct experience in the field said yesterday.
The same source said that Perrault has had two heart bypass operations in the last few years and is in failing health.
The first court appearance for Perrault and the Red Cross is on Dec. 10 at the Hamilton Courthouse. The rest are to appear on Dec. 11, at the Old City Hall Courthouse in Toronto.
In Ottawa yesterday opposition MPs responded to the charges by demanding that all victims receive financial payments from the government.
“The Krever report recommended that all hepatitis C victims be compensated,” said Tory leader Joe Clark in the Commons at question period.
“In 1998 the government rejected that advice and limited compensation to those who were infected between 1986 and 1990. Is the government prepared to reconsider its decision to limit compensation and will it now help all the victims of the tainted blood scandal,” Clark asked.
Health Minister Anne McLellan rejected Clark’s suggestion. “The short answer to that question is no, we are not going to reconsider our position,” she told MPs.
“It would be singularly inappropriate for anyone to comment at this point. Charges have been laid. These matters will be dealt with before the courts.”
Canadian Alliance Leader Stephen Harper renewed the party’s call for full compensation for hepatitis C victims.
Dubbed “Project Oleander”, the RCMP began its investigation months after the 1997 federal report on Canada’s tainted blood system was released. Justice Horace Krever conducted the inquiry into the tainted blood scandal. His report was critical of everyone involved in the blood system, but, it wasn’t empowered to lay criminal charges.
Inspector Gilles Michaud, officer in charge of the Ottawa-based portion of the task force, said the investigation has been “both massive and complex.” Over a million pages of documents were analyzed and investigators went to nine different countries, interviewing 700 people.
Douglas Elliott, lawyer for the Canadian AIDS Society during Krever’s inquiry into the scandal, called the blood tragedy “the worst public health disaster in Canadian history. If not the worst disaster in Canadian history.”
“I couldn’t help today but think about the people who died,” said Elliott from Toronto. “About the people who I was proud to call my friends.”
Nurse Mike McCarthy cried when he first heard of the charges.
“We’ve got some justice,” said McCarthy, who contracted Hepatitis C in 1984 from tainted blood products. “This is unbelievable.”
McCarthy called on the government to compensate those who were infected before 1986, and so weren’t entitled to compensation from the federal government. “We need to hear from our prime minister to find out where he stands on the forgotten victims,” he said.
Hamilton resident Dave Mitchell was told he was HIV positive in 1985. He also has hepatitis C. He attended the press conference yesterday with his brother Ron, who is also infected with both diseases. “I have mixed emotions,” said Mitchell.
“It’s kind of nice to see charges. I’m hoping this isn’t the end. There are a lot more people who are responsible.”