Ottawa tried to get the pharmaceutical industry to pay into a fund for victims of the thalidomide scandal, in what would have been a historic gesture of support toward the survivors of one of Canada's worst drug catastrophes. But the companies refused, Canada's former health minister has revealed.
"I was really disappointed and furious," Rona Ambrose, now interim leader of the Conservative Party, said in an interview.
Ms. Ambrose, who oversaw Canada's support package for thalidomide survivors last year, disclosed she approached "a couple" of pharmaceutical companies linked to the original players involved in the disastrous push to bring thalidomide to Canada in the early 1960s.
The drug spawned an epidemic of armless and legless babies whose mothers took the drug during early pregnancy. More than 100 victims were born in Canada and suffer severe and increasing health problems to this day.
Ms. Ambrose would not name the companies she approached last year, and both her office and Health Canada declined requests to disclose their identities. Ms. Ambrose would only say they were successors to the company linked to the initial tragedy.
"I tried to negotiate behind the scenes with a couple of pharmaceutical companies … they weren't responsible for this wrongdoing, but they were affiliated with the original legacy company," she told The Globe and Mail. "So I tried to make the case to them that they could do something really honourable and put money into this fund."
Thalidomide was launched commercially by a German pharmaceutical company in 1957 and distributed in Canada by Richardson-Merrell Inc. of Ohio, which would later reach out-of-court settlements with many victims' families. (Frank W. Horner Ltd. of Montreal also obtained a licence for thalidomide, but played a lesser role, obtaining approval to distribute the drug only a few months before it was withdrawn due to the link to birth defects.)
Ms. Ambrose wanted the pharmaceutical industry to contribute to a medical assistance fund within Ottawa's $180-million thalidomide support package, announced by the Harper government last year. The assistance fund is aimed at helping survivors with urgent needs such as installing lifts in homes or getting travel expenses covered to obtain surgery unavailable in Canada.
After the pharmaceutical companies rejected Ms. Ambrose's overture, the government went ahead and set up the annual $500,000 fund on its own.
"We did it anyway, but I just thought it would be a gesture that would be important on behalf of the industry," Ms. Ambrose said.
Richardson-Merrell no longer exists, and went through several corporate mergers.
Sanofi-aventis Canada Inc., an affiliate of the drug giant Sanofi based in Laval, Que., acknowledged that Richardson-Merrell was a "distant predecessor company … several times removed." A spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny Sanofi-aventis was one of the companies approached by the health minister.
"We acknowledge the sad history of thalidomide in Canada and have the greatest compassion for Canadians that were impacted," the company said in an e-mail in June, when The Globe and Mail first began to probe the information.
The company readily demonstrated a connection to the thalidomide disaster, providing The Globe and Mail with newspaper articles from the 1970s about Richardson-Merrell's settlements with the victims. Sonafi's spokeswoman said the articles "shed light" on the "generous levels of compensation" provided to victims and their families.
In fact, those settlements, while portrayed as high at the time, have now been widely panned as inadequate.
"To this day the pharma companies will say that they gave big settlements to survivors," Ms. Ambrose said. "They did not."
The out-of-court deals with the families pale compared with today's multimillion-drug-company settlements; some were reported as being up to $500,000, some as low as $10,000. The amounts were not indexed to inflation and have been proved insufficient in meeting survivors' growing physical and financial needs. Families were also silenced by gag orders that prevented them from speaking about their settlements and many remain bitter about what they viewed as the company's bullying tactics.
Ms. Ambrose said Canada's thalidomide survivors had never received fair treatment from previous federal governments, either. The Progressive Conservatives under Brian Mulroney agreed to a single, one-time payment averaging $65,000 a person in 1991, which was quickly depleted.
"No one really did what they were supposed to do back then – the government or the pharmaceutical companies," she said.
While the Harper government faced criticism for ignoring requests for help by the Thalidomide Victims Association of Canada in 2014, Ms. Ambrose said she had been unaware of survivors' plight and acted quickly once the breadth of the problem surfaced. The Globe and Mail wrote an exposé on the suffering of survivors in the fall of 2014.
"Credit to The Globe and Mail for doing the spread that they did. I think that raising awareness made a big, big difference," she said. "I really didn't know."
"As health minister I was never aware that thalidomide survivors had not received compensation for what they went through. I did not know that there was a lack of historical closure," she said. "I was shocked, I was outraged, I was angry at the pharmaceutical company."
The government's settlement, helmed by Ms. Ambrose, included a one-time lump sum payout of $125,000 to each survivor and annual pensions of up to $100,000 a year.