|California Coalition for Workers Memorial Day|
Prescription For Bioterrorism
By Steve Zeltzer
In the world of biotechnology and Pharma, this was a first. Not of a new drug or treatment that could make a company billions of dollars but of the testimony of a former top molecular biology scientist Becky McClain in her suit against the largest drug company in the world Pfizer Inc with revenues of over $44 billion a year.
McClain was an award winning scientist at the Groton, Connecticut Pfizer laboratories who charged in her riveting testimony in mid-March that her effort to protect the safety of herself, other co-workers and the public had led to a campaign of terror against her by this giant and powerful company. She and her biotech team at Pfizer had won the top award at the company competing against 6,000 other world-class scientists at the Global Research and Development Project GRD and were on a roll.
“Science is fun work,” McClain told the federal judge and jury in her case on March 17, 2010. Becky had been hired by Pfizer ten years earlier and had become one of the stars of the company for the development of developing genetic missiles.
“Building Genetic Missiles”
“I was building genetic missiles at Pfizer. We can blow up specific genes and make genetic modifications. I was developing one technology virus that was used to carry material into cells that can permanently incorporated into the host cell genome through transfer of the genetic material into the cells using an infectious agent.”
The work that was done at BL-2 labs at the company was aimed at changing the genetics of the cells to mimic sick cells. Molecular biologists who are doing stem cell research work with genetically engineered viruses and infectious agents designed for various purposes to mix and match to make different viruses. “Every engineered virus is unique for mice, humans and animals,” McClain told the court.
This biotech engineering process is called RNA interference technologies and these molecular missiles were designed by Pfizer molecular biologists like McClain to target the destruction of any gene product de jour. It is also a major moneymaker for Pfizer because they use these technologies as a way to screen for new drugs.
Becky was also assigned at the company to be on the company safety committee to make sure that the health and safety of herself and the public was protected. These safety committees are supposed to monitor the safety conditions at the one of the largest biotech laboratories in the world. Under the law however, McClain learned that safety committee members can be removed unilaterally by the company, and without a union or any other legal protection, workers who complain and are on these committees are in jeopardy. McClain also learned, in fact, that the company had no real interest or concern about protecting the health and safety of their workers, and were plotting at the very time on how to get rid of her.
McClain had taken safety committee job seriously, and began to have growing concerns about potential dangers at the laboratories. The biological experiments required that the scientists be close to their work. The workbenches were located directly next to their desks where they did administrative and clerical work without gloves. At the same time, there was no close clean room where they could eat and drink, and yet be close to monitor and do their experiments. Her co-workers also began to complain that the crowded conditions were becoming problematic since other people were working in other workers assigned areas without knowing what they were working on, and the hallways were general work areas that scientists transferred their material through. The building with several floors had experiments on HIV and other highly infectious diseases McClain testified.
At the same time, McClain’s boss John Hambor, another scientist, testified he was unaware of the need to do “risk assessments” on the material that they were working on, so that they would be aware of the need for extra caution and protection. At Baylor College of Medicine where McClain had worked with other world scientists, risk assessment was a normal and regular part of the work process that allowed the scientists to be aware of these potential health and safety dangers.
“We Don’t Have To Do Risk Assessments”
In testimony under oath at the trial, Eric Utt, who was the Pfizer Biological Safety Officer at the Groton facility, told the court that “We don’t have to do risk assessments.” Despite the many infectious agents being used in genetic engineering projects at one of the largest scientific and biotech research centers in the world, the company’s biological safety officer showed his contempt for the health and safety protection of the staff and the public.
McClain also began to report to the safety committee that the crowded conditions in the laboratory was a concern of her and other workers and that something needed to be done to address this issue. McClain warned that these “dangerous crowded conditions” at the laboratory and that management “stiffened up” when she said something had to be done about these work conditions.
Following this meeting, the company unilaterally removed McClain from the companies health and safety committee, which shocked McClain. “John (Hanbor) approached me and said he had nothing to do with taking me off the safety committee, and he had no intention of bring forward these safety and space issues again.”
Hambor said he was apprehensive about raising these health and safety issues for fear of retaliation by management. In September 2002, the biosafety cabinet in the laboratory began to give off a noxious fume.
Following her dismissal from the committee in January 2002 through June 2002, no more safety committee meetings were even held according to McClain. At the same time, the noxious fumes in her laboratory were found to be emanating from the biological safety cabinet which was supposed to protect them from infectious organisms and other chemicals used in their work.
She also discovered that another scientist Bill Blake was working on her own laboratory bench with an infectious human lentivirus. He was taking the virus and placing it on embryonic stem cells and applying it into other cells where it would release its genetic missile into the new cell infecting it. As McClain understood this was highly dangerous and required strict safety and disinfection precaution and to her horror she found that some of this material created by Ed Guilmette, another scientist working with Blake, had ended up on a counter outside the lab where workers ate and drank.
McClain also knew that at other facilities, the biosafety cabinets would be kept in a separate room from their workbenches and desks and her concern grew.
Getting Sick From The Fumes
McClain and other workers including her boss were now also getting sick from the fumes, and they discovered the fumes were coming from the hood of the biological cabinet. After repeated complaints, the company replaced the cabinet with a new one without testing the hepa filter that was contained in the cabinet. According to McClain, they did not want to do a biological test on the HEPA (filters molds, bacteria, viruses and fine particulates down to 0.2 microns) filter of the safety cabinet and instead, told the laboratory workers they would be burying it and removing it from the lab. McClain testified that Pfizer intentionally mis-sampled in order to get no concrete results from the tests. No cause was ever found because of this mis-sampling of the biological hood by never sampling the exhaust duct into the room, which was causing the illness. It was only sampled when the hood was turned off.
At the same time, the exhaust from the contaminated fan with potentially deadly biological organisms was being spread to the Groton air and was never reported to any local, state or government agencies. The internal safety committee inspection made no note of the hood problem despite illnesses reported before and after the inspection from the hood. This was also testified at the trial with no challenge even from Pfizer lawyers and witnesses.
In September 2002, McClain got a serious headache, dry throat and got nauseous. She called environmental health and safety services and could get no response so she then called emergency services.
The Pfizer Health and Safety manager Mary Murphy promised to look into the noxious odor and asked that she contact three individuals who had recently used the biological hood to find out what material they were using in their experiments.
McClain also asked for a meeting with Ellen St. Aubin who was corporate head of Environmental Safety at the Groton facility. The response of St. Aubin was that the company only did what they were required to do under the law. She apologized for the illnesses and said others had complained as well. McClain was now in a growing dangerous and desperate situation and wanted a transfer out of the laboratory to protect her health.
Criminal Effort To Cover Up The Dangerous Working Conditions
She was also unaware that the company and their legal advisors were engaged in a criminal effort not only to cover up the dangerous working conditions but also to force her to stay in this dangerous workplace environment despite the obvious life and death threats to her life and the life of other Pfizer scientists and workers at the facility.
The key to this new threat was the actions of her supervisor John Hambor. They had previously worked together well and had received high awards and recognition for their work, but the company now was putting the heat on Hambor to shut McClain up. He began to tell McClain that he was afraid of her documenting the health and safety issues because it would “affect his job,” according to McClain. She told him that she wanted to get a transfer because of the lab health and safety problems. She and others continued to get sick from the continuing noxious odor now coming out of the new biological cabinet. She told him “it was affecting her work” and she needed a “safer place”.
In late January 2003 she received performance review from 2002 and after she had signed it and later read it carefully, she saw that he had said she could only work on single projects well. This was surprising since McClain had the ability to work on 6 or 7 projects at a time and complete all of them.
He could not give her an example but agreed to meet with her later in the week. She also contacted Pfizer managers Polly Kipp and John McNeish, and they told her there was no problem changing the performance review evaluation.
A week later on the day that the appointment with Hambor to go over the evaluation in the afternoon McClain came to work at 9:45 AM. “When I opened the door, John was standing at the edge of my workspace visibly angry with a red face.” “ Where have you been?” he demanded to know. McClain told him she had to start an experiment and could not talk at that time. He now yelled at her “Are you telling me to fuck off?” McClain said that they could talk about it at 3:00 PM but according to her Hambor was now completely out of control.
“Are you fucking with me? I think coming in late is a performance evaluation problem and I need to know where you are at all times of the day.” He screamed.
“I can put anything I want in your performance review and there is nothing you can do about it.” He then moved inches from her face and blocked her in her cubicle.
"I was against the wall with a phone and I pretended to dial to get help, he had me cornered” McClain testified.
After seeing McClain dial, Hambor left the cubicle and according to McClain, she began to sob. “It was a hostile intimidation and threatened my career. He came back in 5 minutes and apologized but I was shell shocked!”
The meeting at 3:00 PM took place, and at the meeting, Hambor agreed to remove the language but the message was clear that McClain was now the target of the company. She then went to manager John McNeish and told him about the intimidation and threats and that was affecting her health with stress and disruptive sleep patterns.
She also wrote up the incident for Pfizer Employee Assistance and delivered it to Pfizer manager Polly Kipp asking for an immediate transfer. Kipp told McClain that Pfizer manager Jim Heym had just issued a new policy that unless it was an emergency, there would be no transfers, and this was not an emergency. In fact, the company now demanded that McClain take a “Managing Personal Growth” course while no such course was ordered for Hambor. Hambor was reprimanded for this incident 2 and 1/2 years later after OSHA complaints were filed, and the company was seeking to do damage control in any legal action.
She was also ordered to continue to report to Hambor with no reprimand for his behavior.
Targeted For Retaliation And Termination
McClain now was boxed in with an intimidator who had terrorized her, and the noxious odor was still coming out of the new biological safety cabinet. What Becky was unaware of is that she was now being targeted by the company for retaliation and termination. In 2005 McClain was terminated and in 2008, Pfizer hired the national union busting law firm Jackson Lewis for all of its employment labor work. This national law firm conspires with union and non-union companies like Pfizer on how to avoid legal requirements and to legally retaliate against workers who raise health and safety concerns as well as other discriminatory policies by corporate America.
In March 7, 2002, she wrote another letter to Mary Murphy that she was becoming ill from repeated exposures and on March 18, 2003, one year later, Murphy wrote back that they had bought a new hood and new filter. The old hood and filter was wrapped and placed in the hallway where scientists from throughout the building walked through.
They again talked about burying the hood and filter. The new hood was also emanating exhaust not only back into the laboratory but also to the air in Groton potentially disseminating dangerous unknown biological and chemical material. This of course was no concern of the company and their major work now was to get McClain out of the company.
Phil Vickers, a Vice President of the department above John McNeish, said in his testimony that Becky had brought forward safety concerns but he did not think they were valid concerns. He also told the court that a “safety expert was not needed to determine if they were valid concerns. When asked why the company did not note in the internal safety inspection checklist about the biosafety cabinet (hood) problem making people sick before and after the inspection, Vickers testified that “They were only getting sick some of the time and not all of the time.”
His testimony confirmed the fact that McClain and others had complained about viruses found where they ate and drank with additional storage of human and monkey blood samples or genetically engineered lentiviruses, no risk assessments being done on them before their use.
OSHA Refuses To Do Physical Safety Inspection
After meeting a brick wall at Pfizer, McClain contacted OSHA and met with Federal OSHA instigator Marchee Briant. Briant, according to McClain, indicated a lack of concern about the complaints. This was later confirmed when Briant refused to conduct any physical safety inspections of the laboratory despite the repeated exposures of workers at the site. Briant also refused to visit the site to see if changes had been made in the laboratory to protect the health and safety of the scientists. Instead, she took the word of Pfizer that changes had been made to the laboratory.
At the trial, it was also exposed that Briant had improperly taken 50 pages of client-attorney files from McClain, and later, these notes were used by Pfizer to take out of context and slander McClain’s arguing that she was only suing Pfizer for money and not over the serious health and safety issues.
The failure of OSHA to make a proper investigation of Pfizer is not unique to that company and many other biotech companies throughout the US. In the last ten years according to OSHA records, only two safety complaints are on record for 40,000 Pfizer employees in the United States and Pfizer only reported only two injuries within the last ten years.
Despite Federal requirements that when over 3 people are sickened in a laboratory this must be reported to the government, it came to light under cross examination at the trial that this was blatantly ignored by Pfizer management. The Pfizer Biological Safety officer Eric Utt also told the court that he “had never called OSHA to investigate or report on the injuries and sicknesses at the facility.” The July 1, 2002 incident of illnesses were also never reported to OSHA in uncontested testimony at the trial.
McClain also sought to get obtain genetic coding for genetically engineered lentivirus (HIV) strains used to infect mouse embryonic stem cells that she believed were handled on an open laboratory bench near her office. She believed that the genetic coding (nucleotide sequence) of the lentivirus is an employee exposure record, which should be releasable. Pfizer however asserted that the genetic coding of the lentivirus is a company trade secret and denied her right to these exposure records. This was never verified as a trade secret by OSHA or by the Workmans’Compensation’s Commissioner in Norwich, Connecticut. This leaves her in a Catch 22.
“General Duty Authority” Unused
OSHA under “General Duty Authority” could have required Pfizer to provide these documents and all other possible exposure documents, but they allowed Pfizer to stonewall and sided with the trade secret argument. A genetic map was provided that showed the etiological link to her illness but without further detail required for PCR testing and further treatment.
Not only did OSHA not protect McClain, but also OSHA inspectors and even OSHA managers who have sought to do their jobs have been retaliated against and driven out of the agency.
In fact, former chief OSHA regulatory official Adam Finkel in a statement in support of McClain, points out that he was illegally hounded out of OSHA precisely because of his efforts to blow the whistle on the inhalation of beryllium dust.
The concerted effort to retaliate against OSHA staff that want to do their job has left an agency shattered, and an ineffective vehicle at this point to protect workers and the public.
It is another reason that the new OSHA management and the US Labor Secretary need to reopen the McClain case to investigate the failure of OSHA to do their job. There is also a new proposed bill that would strengthen worker protection called the Protecting America’s Workers Action (H.R. 2067).
Unfortunately however, in a step backward, the OSHA administration is in the process of even reducing protective right to know laws. OSHA is proposing to slash the hazard warning information that chemical manufacturers must provide to workers, customers and other users
The Federal trial has also exposed the duplicitous and arbitrary role of the Bush appointed Hartford, CT Federal judge Vanessa L. Bryant. Even before the trial began, Bryant had thrown out a count that Pfizer had been had engaged in willful and wanton misconduct by exposing McClain to a virus that caused serious health problems, and prevented her from working.
On the first day of the trial, the judge ordered that McClain was not to mention that she was concerned that these health and safety conditions were a public health and safety hazard, but only about herself and others in the laboratory. For McClain, the health and safety issues have never been just about her own health and safety alone, but the protection of the public as well. In a presentation on 2009 Workers Memorial Day in San Francisco, McClain placed her struggle for health and safety and oversight of the biotech industry in the context of protecting the public’s health and safety.
Acting as a defense attorney for Pfizer, the judge sought to shield them from their criminal activity in covering up the dangerous health and safety conditions, and even preventing McClain from telling the jury she was sickened by the contamination, and unable to work due to neurological illnesses directly caused by the contaminated laboratory that she and others were forced to work in. The conscious terrorism by the company against McClain was also a warning to other Pfizer scientists and staff that even if they were being contaminated they had to remain silent.
Federal Judge Bryant prevented McClain from having an expert witness Professor Michael J. Siciliano of the University of Texas, who would have provided evidence that Pfizer does not follow national and international biosafety practices. In fact, he was prepared to testify that doing Risk Assessments are part of NIH guidelines and are critical to knowing what the dangers are of the biological matierals that Pfizer was working with. At the same time, OSHA did not do a proper physical safety inspection of the laboratories. This showed that OSHA officials in fact were colluding with Pfizer to protect Pfizer's interests. Evidence would have also shown that while Pfizer engineers are developing dangerous genetically engineered viruses infectious to man, mammals and insects, Pfizer does not biocontain these dangerous agents properly, thereby, threatening not only the workers health and safety but also the public health and safety. Pfizer also does not document the identity of viruses that they are creating and Pfizer purposely hid exposure records, cloning and production notebooks to cover up their liability that would link McClains' illness to her biological exposure. The collusion of the judge to protect Pfizer was clearly illuminated as she prevented the jury from seeing critical information about this corporate conspiracy.
At the same time, McClain had gone to the Connecticut Workers Compensation Board and asked them to get her exposure records to show the causes of her injuries. However, she was told that they did not have the power to obtain them from Pfizer. Although the Federal Court had also ordered that they provide these documents, Pfizer had refused to provide them, and been faced with no sanctions from the biased Federal judge. This puts McClain and all biotech workers who have been injured on the job in an impossible situation. If they cannot get their exposure records, they cannot prove that they have been injured on the job, and are therefore unable to take care of their healthcare problems.
This is not only a problem in McClain’s case but injured Agraquest biotech worker David Bell in Davis, California and many others. Their liability costs are being shifted over the Federal SSI and disability, so the public is paying the cost of their injuries. The terror and fear instituted by Pfizer against its' workers that is backed up by a Federal OSHA system which refuses to conduct physical inspections and Federal judges who do damage control for these major corporations is not exceptional.
President Obama and US Attorney General Eric Holder Let Pfizer Off The Hook
President Obama and his Attorney General Eric Holder Jr. even allowed Pfizer to pay a $2.4 billion dollar fine for illegally selling improper drugs to the US public by setting up a fake company controlled by Pfizer to plead guilty to these criminal charges. Pfizer was allowed by Holder to set up the shell company Pharmacia Corporation. The company owns another company called Pharmacia & Upjohn Company, LLC, which, in turn, owns Pharmacia & Upjohn Company, Incorporated. This company pleaded guilty to Pfizer’s crimes, and Pfizer executives were allowed to get off without any criminal penalties that the law required. As Anderson Cooper in the CNN report stated Pfizer seems “too big to nail” and this means that Pfizer bosses are above the law.
In fact, Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler met personally with the Obama administration four times last year at the White House, and negotiated special protection for Pfizer in the new healthcare “reform” bill. On October 1, 2009, Pfizer CEO Jeffrey Kindler was appointed to the Federal Reserve Board by Obama after Pfizer plead guilty to illegally distributing Bextra and paying a $430 million fine.
For Pfizer, which has a Market Cap of $138.33 billion this of course is a drop in the bucket.
Role Of US Media
The role of the media is also significant. With Pharma ads running 24 hours a day on cable and broadcast television pushing drugs, the grip of Pfizer and other companies is extremely powerful. Despite the efforts to get national ABC, CNN, Fox, CBS and NBC to cover the McClain story, there was no interest. Connecticut NPR, which gets tens of thousands of dollars from Pfizer and the drug industry, was unwilling even to do any investigative story of something right in their own back yard. All it received on Connecticut NPR was 1.24 minutes news brief.
Even independent journalist Amy Goodman of Democracy Now programmed on the Pacifica network was not interested in talking with McClain or finding out more about the story. This failure of the media to educate the public about these growing dangers is another part of the serious systemic problems facing biotech workers and the public.
The case of molecular biologist Becky McClain is a sharp example of the dangers to Pfizer workers and the public at large that the incestuous relationship between this industry, the government and the health and safety enforcement agencies is a highly toxic danger.
The criminal cover-up of the terrorism against Becky McClain by the company, the Obama administration and the failure of the corporate controlled media to cover the case are further examples of the systemic problems.
Efforts are being made nationally to reopen the Federal OSHA investigation as a result of the malfeasance of the OSHA investigator and their failure to do a proper inspection.
This will be a test for the new leadership of OSHA officials David Michaels, Jordan Barab and the US Labor Secretary, Hilda Solis. It is also another example of the failure of other government agencies to take on new technologies in the workplace. The EPA, the Food and Drug Administration, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Occupational Safety Health Administration and NIOSH are all supposedly required to do oversight and studies of potential dangers in these industries, but systemic failure of these agencies to do their jobs is glaring.
The failure to have enforceable regulations in the biotech and nanotech industry is a growing danger not only to the workers, but also to the public at large. In light of the Obama administration’s failure to enforce the laws against Pfizer and their sell-out to the pharmaceutical industry, it raises very real questions about their willingness to protect Becky McClain and the tens of thousands of workers in new industries like biotech and nanotech.