In The 1980s, Bayer Knowingly Sold HIV-Contaminated Medicine, Killing Thousands Of People

From companies with terrible reputations to corporations with ties to the Nazis, businesses have made a lot of bad decisions. But one of the most horrific stories happened only a few decades ago, and most people have never even heard of it. Bayer, famous for selling Aspirin, potentially killed thousands by knowingly selling medicine contaminated with HIV. 

They produced Factor VIII, a medicine for hemophiliacs developed from blood plasma. At the time Bayer sold HIV medication, hemophiliacs had a 90% chance of catching the deadly disease. In October of 1984, Bayer knew that heat treatment killed the AIDS virus, and that unheated Factor VIII concentrations were a death sentence for hemophiliacs. And yet Bayer's Cutter Biological unit decided to sell infected medicine overseas, denying the safer heat-treated product to "use up stocks" of the HIV-infected drug. Many people from Asia and Latin America died as a result of Bayer's prioritization of profits over people.

  • Blood Banks Instituted New Safety Precautions, But Bayer Still Sold Contaminated Blood Overseas
    Photo: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-3.0-DE

    Blood Banks Instituted New Safety Precautions, But Bayer Still Sold Contaminated Blood Overseas

    The FDA licensed the first commercial test for HIV in 1985. That same year, blood banks began to screen their supplies, a development that likely saved thousands of lives. 

    Even before the technological ability to screen contaminated blood, Bayer's Cutter Biological was working to develop a safer form of medicine. By 1984, Bayer created a product treated with heat, which rendered the HIV virus inactive, and began selling it in the United States. Yet for more than a year, the company shipped the dangerous old medicine overseas, even as internally the corporation admitted it almost certainly caused HIV infections.

  • Bayer Risked Lives For Profits

    Why did Bayer sell contaminated blood overseas for months with the knowledge that it wasn't safe? In part, their motive was profits. The company didn't want to destroy large stores of their transfusion products, which would obviously cost them money. On top of that, Bayer decided to meet fixed-priced contracts with the contaminated old product, because it was cheaper to produce. Instead of sending the contaminated blood to the United States and Europe, the lab shipped it to countries with fewer regulations.

  • The Deadly Products Killed Many People In Asia And Latin America

    Bayer's Cutter Biological unit knew their old medicine carried a high risk of HIV transmission. But they still shipped the contaminated products to hemophiliacs around the world. After February 1984, when the company switched to a newer, safer heat-treated method for making Factor VIII, it sold the old, unsafe product in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Japan, and Argentina.

    While few records remain from the period, in Hong Kong and Taiwan more than 100 patients were infected with HIV after using the unsafe medicine. Li Wei-chun's son died in 1996 when he was only 23 years old — he was a hemophiliac who contracted AIDS after using Bayer's product. In an interview with the New York Times, Ms. Li said, ''They did not care about the lives in Asia. It was racial discrimination.''

  • The CDC Warned Bayer In 1982 That Blood Transfusion Might Spread HIV

    By 1982, it was clear blood transfusions might be transmitting HIV. On December 3, 1982, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) sent a letter to the Cutter Biological Division of Miles Laboratories, Inc., owned by Bayer, that read, "Continuing reports of AIDS among persons with hemophilia A raise serious questions about the possible transmission of AIDS through blood and blood products."

    A memorandum later that year recommended the company warn customers about the dangers of contracting AIDS through infected blood. By February of 1983, the lab said they were screening donors for AIDS, following reports the virus could be transmitted through blood or blood products. But at the time, there still wasn't a blood test for the HIV virus.

  • A Simple Step Eliminated The Danger, But Bayer Didn't Want To Pay The Cost
    Photo: Bryson Jack / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    A Simple Step Eliminated The Danger, But Bayer Didn't Want To Pay The Cost

    Factor VIII was a dangerous medicine in the 1980s. Manufacturers pooled the plasma from as many as 10,000 donors to create the concentrate, all during a period when there was no way to screen for HIV. Even a small number of HIV positive donors might contaminate the entire pool, infecting thousands of Factor VIII recipients.

    In 1983, Factor VIII manufacturers developed a safer method to create the life-saving medicine. By heating the concentrate, HIV is rendered inactive, and the improved methods dropped the infection rate to zero. But it also increased the cost — heat-treated Factor VIII is six times more expensive to produce.

  • HIV-Contaminated Factor VIII Was A Death Sentence For Recipients
    Photo: JJEv810 / Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY-SA-4.0

    HIV-Contaminated Factor VIII Was A Death Sentence For Recipients

    Many hemophiliacs depended on regular transfusions of Factor VIII, a blood clotting agent, to stay healthy. But the risk of HIV infection after receiving infected Factor VIII was higher than any other means of transmission, including unprotected sex and sharing intravenous needles. 

    In fact, a full 90% of recipients who received HIV-contaminated Factor VIII were infected with HIV by their follow-up appointment. The likelihood of catching HIV was independent of the recipient's age, sex, or health, and every single infusion only increased the risk of fatal infection.