Fifty years after the event Grünenthal issues an apology as victims of the drug continue to press for compensation

Thalidomide was responsible for causing deformities in more than 10,000 babies

The manufacturer of thalidomide, German company Grünenthal, has finally issued an apology for the effects the drug had on babies, half a century after the event. However, many of those affected by the drug have slammed the apology as meaningless in the absence of the company also discussing compensation.

Thalidomide’s notoriety derives from its severe teratogenic effects. The mild sedative was prescribed to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness in the 1950s, but by the time it was withdrawn in 1961, more than 10,000 babies around the world had been born with severe disabilities, notably arm and leg deformities.

The apology was made in a speech by Grünenthal’s chief executive, Harald Stock, during the inauguration of a memorial to the victims of thalidomide in Stolberg, Germany. Admitting that the presence of a company representative at the ceremony was ‘controversial’, Stock went on to say that thalidomide is a part of the company’s history, and that they have a responsibility to face up to thalidomide’s legacy.

‘On behalf of Grünenthal, with its shareholders and all employees, I would like to take the opportunity … to express our sincere regrets about the consequences of thalidomide and our deep sympathy for all those affected, their mothers and their families,’ he said. ‘We ask that you regard our long silence as a silent shock that [the victims’] fate has caused us.’

He went on to say that when the thalidomide tragedy happened, the world was very different from today and the international scientific community, the pharma industry, governments, legislators and administrations have had to learn a lot from it. ‘Throughout the world the tragedy influenced the development of new authorisation procedures and legal frameworks, which seek to minimise the risks of new medicines as much as possible.’

However, he then added that the company had acted in accordance with the scientific knowledge and all industry standards for testing new drugs that were available at the time and that they could not have detected the drug’s teratogenic potential before it was marketed. This was disputed by campaigners, including Martin Johnson, director of the Thalidomide Trust, who told the BBC that there was much evidence that they did know about the harm the drug could cause.

Compensation is also a thorny issue. While some has been paid, including by Distillers, the distributor of the drug in the UK, and some by Grünenthal itself, the company has never admitted liability. Several legal cases demanding compensation are still ongoing, including a class action in Australia.