• Transparency Networks

The spread of the novel Coronavirus was an unprecedented crisis across borders. As if a global pandemic wasn’t enough, 2020 also saw the emergence of a second, far more insidious crisis.


Countless people put their lives and jobs on the line to publicly expose the failings of health care systems, labor laws, and audacious violation of personal rights by authorities during the pandemic.


More often than not, employers and state authorities resort to harassing and firing people for speaking the truth. If this sounds alarmist, here are some factual accounts of how whistleblowers have faced systematic persecution during the pandemic.


China


The earliest dissenting voices about inadequate health and safety measures came from the place where it all began - Wuhan, China.


Dr. Li Wenliang was the first to warn the world via social media about the dangers of a newly-discovered virus in Wuhan, China. The Chinese government severely reprimanded Wenliang and his social media post declared illegal. By the time China woke up to the gravity of the crisis, the doctor had contracted the virus from a patient and died. His death sparked outrage and grief the world over.


Similarly, Dr. Ai Fen mysteriously disappeared after she registered a complaint about supervisors gagging her concerns about the Coronavirus. Fen worked at the Wuhan Central Hospital and was one out of eight doctors summoned by the police for their allegedly defamatory statements.


The United States


Over time, it became painfully evident that America was reeling the hardest from the crisis. As the country swung from indifference to ineptitude, several whistleblowers came forward to speak out.


Rick Bright, former director of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), went public with claims that he faced severe backlash for opposing the use of the anti-malaria drug, Hydroxychloroquine as a cure for the virus. He also claimed top administration officials repeatedly pressured him to award contracts amounting to millions of dollars to the clients of a well-connected consultant.


Another anonymous whistleblower from the HHS disclosed concerns about inadequate PPEs and the training of health personnel. The employee alleges she was indecorously reassigned and faced termination if she refused the reassignment.


Attacks continued to rain down on essential frontline workers. Lauri Mazurkiewicz, a nurse at Chicago’s North Western Memorial Hospital was fired over the contents of an email sent to her colleagues. In the email, she wrote about wanting to wear a more protective mask on duty since she suffered from asthma and needed to take care of an elderly, ailing father.


In yet another case, an assistant employed at a Care Homes company spoke up about the mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak where he worked. Senior managers fired him on the grounds of “poor conduct.”


Brett E. Crozier, employed with the US Navy onboard the “Theodore Roosevelt” received zero to no resources to combat the virus. Crozier expressed his concerns in a letter and was fired for it.


Poland


The dangers of speaking truth to power during the pandemic reached some of the world’s highest political offices. Poland’s Member of Parliament, Bernadeta Krynicka was suspended by her party President for expressing concerns about the state’s inability to manage and contain the spread.


Meanwhile, at a hospital, Renata Piżanowska, who worked as a neonatal mid-wife lost her job for a Facebook post expressing concerns about the health of her patients and herself.


Kerala, India


In India’s coastal state of Kerala, Dr. Shinu Syamalan was sacked for raising concerns about a patient traveling back from Qatar with flu symptoms. The patient had refused to get tested for the virus. Indian laws protecting whistleblowers are virtually ineffective, therefore, as good as non-existent.



As the international community battles the virus, protecting the rights of vigilant citizens ought to be critical common ground as well. With attacks against COVID-related whistleblowers increasing, the Whistleblowing International Network (WIN) has called for stronger legislation providing safety and rights to whistleblowers everywhere.

  • Transparency Networks

Eleven years ago, on this day, the US healthcare industry was rocked by the largest criminal scandal it had ever seen. Pfizer, one of the world’s leading drug companies, was slapped with the largest criminal fine in American history as part of a $2.3 billion settlement with federal prosecutors. The charges - misrepresenting and promoting medicines without FDA approval along with paying kickbacks to doctors.


Pfizer pleaded guilty to illegally marketing its painkiller, Bextra for uses not approved by medical regulators. The company withdrew Bextra from the market in 2004.


The case was unprecedented in exposing rampant criminality in the health care sector. The case stood out also in its David and Goliath trope - where testimonies provided by six whistleblowers crippled a global pharmaceutical giant. Federal prosecutors heavily relied on evidence supplied by whistleblowers to build a solid case against Pfizer.


The case against Pfizer for fraudulently marketing drugs goes down in history as the most important health fraud settlement in US history, with the largest criminal fine of any kind.


Back to The Start


Pfizer’s woes began when John Kopchinski, a Pfizer sales rep in Florida, blew the whistle (and with it, the entire ceiling) on the company’s ethics or lack thereof.


Kopchinski, a Gulf War veteran, worked for Pfizer in South Florida until he was fired in 2003. He subsequently filed a lawsuit where he accused Pfizer of aggressively promoting Bextra for conditions beyond its approved uses, namely, arthritis and menstrual pain. He contended that Pfizer continued to market Bextra despite being aware of adverse sideeffects like heart attacks, strokes, and blood clots.


Kopchinski also spoke of sales reps receiving a $50 bounty if they convinced doctors to prescribe Bextra during standard pre and post-surgery care for patients. These protocols directed patients to take high doses of Bextra before and after a scheduled surgery.


Bextra had received approval to relieve arthritis pain (10 milligrams once a day) and menstrual pain (20 milligrams twice a day). The FDA rejected an application to market the drug for other uses since the risks were higher than the rewards. Regardless, Pfizer pushed sales reps to prescribe Bextra for other conditions and at higher doses.


A Settlement of Firsts


The six-year investigation contained a slew of civil and criminal allegations culminating in a $2.3 billion settlement in 2009. Pfizer's subsidiary, Pharmacia & Upjohn, paid a criminal fine of $1.3bn. The settlement was the first of its kind in American judicial history.


Pfizer also paid $1bn in civil settlements to Medicare, Medicaid, and other government health insurance schemes.


The Justice Department directed Pfizer to Pfizer pay a $1.3 billion criminal penalty associated with Bextra, along with civil fines amounting to $1 billion concerning other medicines.


The six whistleblowers collected a combined $102 million from federal shares of the settlement.


A growing number of drug makers remain under the scanner for giving kickbacks to doctors or fleecing federal programs. Since the Bextra scandal, prosecutors have exercised tighter controls through fines going into billions of dollars and prosecuting the doctors concerned.


Interestingly, Pfizer’s story today seems to be one of resurgence. While lessons from the Bextra scandal remain, the company is better known as the developer of one of the world’s first COVID-19 vaccines.