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By Richard Gale and Gary Null Ph.D.
From its humble beginnings in the 1880s, making cotton gauze dressings and eventually band aids, baby powder and shampoo, J&J has expanded into one of the most powerful multinational pharmaceutical and medical device companies in the world.
In 1959, J&J entered the world of Big Pharma as a leading player after succeeding in getting Tylenol approved as an over-the-counter drug. Shortly thereafter, J&J commenced with a flurry of acquisitions to increase its product line, which included Neutrogena, Cordis, DePuy, Janssen Pharmaceutica and Centocor.
Today, in most American home medicine cabinets one will find a popular J&J product: Listerine, Tylenol and Benadryl, Neutrogena skin cream, Rogaine, Neosporin antibacterial ointment or Destin to treat diaper rashes.
Vaccination centers and pharmacies are racing to get their hands on the new adenovirus-based vaccine. And as we will further note below, this is from a company that has absolutely no past experience in vaccine development and manufacturing.
We need to seriously challenge J&J’s reputation. A 2019 report by the British intelligence firm Alva has noted that J&J’s reputation has sunk dramatically during the past years, from ninth place among 58 major pharmaceutical firms to 57th place. Certainly, this is not a company with a clean ethical record.
A review of J&J’s rap sheet over the past three decades presents a dire and contrary image that should lead us to question the company’s claims about its COVID-19 vaccine given the lucrative market the pandemic has created for the most aggressive medical corporations.
Similar to its equally over-sized competitors Glaxo, Merck and Pfizer, J&J too has had to pay out billions of dollars over the decades for civil settlements and criminal activities. As the pharmaceutical giant receives applause across the mainstream media for the release and Emergency Use Authorization for its COVID-19 vaccine, Brazil’s Public Prosecution Service started an investigation into J&J’s antitrust activities under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) for “possible improper payments in its medical device industry.”
This was part of a 2019 Federal Bureau of Investigation bribery scheme investigation that included Siemens, General Electric and Philips acting as a larger cartel to illegally pay off government officials in return for securing contracts with Brazil’s national health programs. The charges also included price gouging and inflating prices up to 800 percent above market price to cover bribes.
This is not the first time J&J has violated FCPA laws. In 2011, J&J was charged by the U.S. Department of Justice with conspiracy for paying off Greek doctors to advance its product sales. The Securities and Exchange Commission also charged civil complaints.
The company had to pay out a $70 million penalty for buying off officials in Greece, Poland and Romania. In 2010, an executive for J&J’s subsidiary DePuy was sentenced to a year in prison for corrupt payments to physicians within the Greek national healthcare system.
As one of the world’s leading medical device companies, J&J has had its share of recalls for faulty products, including contact lenses and hip implants In 2013, the drugmaker paid nearly $2.5 billion to compensate 8,000 recipients for its flawed hip implants. Again in 2016, another $1 billion was awarded to plaintiffs injured from this device.
One particular dubious activity the company became involved with in 2008 was to launch a “phantom recall.” When its Motrin IB caplets were discovered to not properly dissolve, J&J hired outside contractors to buy up store supplies in order to avoid making public declaration. No one would have known of this activity and it would have gotten past the eyes of U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) inspectors had the deception not been exposed during a Congressional investigation.
Other major J&J lawsuits and recalls for faulty products include:
- 1995: $7.5 million fine for destroying documents to cover up an investigation into wrongful marketing of its Retin-A acne cream to remove wrinkles.
- 1996: An undisclosed settlement on false claims over condom protection claims to protect against HIV and other STDs.
- 2001: Paid out $860 million in a class action lawsuit for misleading customers about prematurely discarding its 1-Day Acuvue soft contact lens. J&J recommended they should be worn only once, although it was discovered the lenses were no different than the regular Acuvue lens that would last for two weeks.
- 2010: $81 million settlement for misbranding its anti-epileptic drug Topamax to treat psychiatric disorders and hiring outside physicians to join its sales force to promote the drug for unapproved conditions. The following year, J&J paid $85 million for similar charges against its heart drug Natrecor.
- 2011: Several J&J baby products were discovered to contain carcinogenic ingredients.
- 2013: The U,S. Justice Department charged the company $2.2 billion in criminal fines for marketing its autism and anti-psychotic drug Risperdal for unapproved uses. Forty-five states had filed civil lawsuits against J&J in the scandal. Janssen also had an aggressive campaign to market Risperdal for use in children with behavioral challenges. Other serious adverse effects from Risperdal reported by the FDA include diabetes mellitus, hyperprolactinaemia, somnolence, depression, anxiety, psychotic behavior, suicide and death.
The company’s legal problems over Risperdal do not appear to have ended. In October 2019, a Philadelphia jury awarded a man $8 billion in punitive damages for failing to warn that the drug could cause young men to grow breasts. Other recent suits include litigation over its blood thinner Xarelto risks of internal bleeding, and a $775 million settlement to 25,000 plaintiffs.
- 2016: Two women were awarded $127 million in damages for the talc in its J&J Baby Powder causing ovarian cancer. Later, more than 1,000 similar cases came forward. During the trial it was discovered that J&J suspected a link between talcum and ovarian cancer back in the 1970s. A Missouri verdict fined the company over $4 billion but it was later reduced to $2.1 billion. A New York Times investigation into internal J&J memos uncovered evidence that the talcum powder may have contained asbestos. These cases continue. In July 2019, J&J made efforts to dismiss 14,000 lawsuits over the talcum-cancer risk.
More recently, J&J has been in the spotlight for its role in contributing to the deadly opioid crisis. The company holds the patent for a unique strain of opium poppy commonly named Norman. It is the leading provider of the opioid for Purdue Pharma’s painkiller OxyContin. An Oklahoma court ordered a $465 million fine. This opened the door for other states to follow suit.
To fully grasp how insane the system is, the just-under-half-a-billion civil fine was considered good news on Wall Street, which anticipated the verdict would be in the billions of dollars. Consequently, J&J’s stock rose 2 percent after the judge’s ruling. And despite J&J being Purdue’s major supplier, and a major contributor in the U.S. opioid epidemic, Purdue was forced to file for bankruptcy due to mounting lawsuits for overdose deaths.
Finally, we might ask why a 140-year-old company, with no history in vaccine development, has now become a hero in the immunological war against COVID-19?
J&J is not a household name in the vaccine industry. It is utterly absent, let alone ranks among the world’s 20 major vaccine makers. Among the 53 vaccines for other infections listed by the CDC as approved for use in the U.S., not one is manufactured by the nation’s leader in mouthwash and baby powder.
It is therefore no surprise that the company had to partner with Merck to manufacture its COVID vaccine to meet demand — has no history or expertise in this medical field.
The COVID pandemic is a cash cow for the drug industry’s taking. Bernstein market analyst Ronny Gal predicts COVID-19 vaccine sales will reach $40 billion this year. A more realistic figure is likely higher as together, Moderna and Pfizer project their revenues at $32 billion.
Then there are the other major vaccines by AstraZeneca, J&J and Novavax entering the competition. According to the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine’s vaccine research tracker, more than 200 vaccines against COVID-19 are in development worldwide.
Finally, there is a disturbing question for which we have no clear answer: How is it that a drug and household health product company, with no prior history in vaccine development, can develop and rush to market its first vaccine against a viral strain that was only identified 14 months ago?
Developing a vaccine requires many years and necessitates the establishment of an R&D infrastructure vastly different than the structure required for conventional drug development.
If J&J’s long rap sheet offers any warning, it is that we must be wary of any claims the company makes about the efficacy and safety of its products.Originally published on Progressive Radio Network.