PARIS – Accused of favoring profits over patients’ lives, French pharmaceutical company Servier Laboratories is facing millions of euros in potential fines and damages after a huge trial involving 6,500 plaintiffs who say the company allowed a diabetes drug to be widely and irresponsibly prescribed as a diet pill — with deadly consequences.
The popular drug, called Mediator, became one of France’s biggest modern health scandals, and the trial is wrapping up Monday after more than six months of proceedings targeting both Servier and France’s medicines watchdog. Servier says it didn’t know about the drug’s risks.
The trial was interrupted by another health crisis: the coronavirus, which has prompted new scrutiny of health authorities and of drugs being rushed out as treatments or vaccines.
In the 33 years that Mediator was on the market, it was suspected in 1,000-2,000 deaths among millions who took it as an appetite suppressant, according to a 2010 study. Doctors linked it to heart and lung problems.
One doctor flagged concerns as far back as 1998, and testified that he was bullied into retracting them. Facing questions about the drug's side effects from medical authorities in Switzerland, Spain and Italy, Servier withdrew it from those markets between 1997 and 2004.
But it took an independent investigation by another worried French doctor before the company suspended sales in its main market in France in 2009. It wasn't sold in the U.S.
“There are men and women who put a deadly poison on the market,” the whistleblower, Dr. Irene Frachon, told the court. She published a book detailing her findings, and her efforts were profiled in a 2016 film, “The Girl from Brest.”
Servier is accused of manslaughter, involuntary injury, fraud, influence trading and other charges. Investigating magistrates concluded that Servier for decades covered up Mediator’s effects on patients. The national medicines agency is suspected of colluding in masking its dangers.