A major trial into a weight loss drug linked to the deaths of hundreds has opened in France in a case exposing the allegedly unhealthy ties between members of the country’s medicines watchdog and the pharmaceutical industry.
Servier, the drugs company, stands accused of aggravated deception, fraud and illegal taking of interest for failing to act to shelve Mediator, a diabetes pill for weight loss, despite persistent safety concerns.
The ANSM medicines watchdog – known at the time as Afssaps – faces charges of negligence and manslaughter in the criminal court in Paris.
At least 500 people are thought to have died of heart valve problems in France after taking the drug while experts estimate it may cause as many as 2,100 deaths in the long term and may have caused irrevocable damage to thousands of others.
Mediator was on the market for 33 years and was used by about five million people. Safety alerts were flagged in the mid-1990s but it was only banned in France only in 2009 – long after being outlawed in the United States, Spain and Italy.
The marathon six-month trial, one of the biggest in French history, involves 2,600 civil plaintiffs and will focus on 91 victims, four of them deceased.
Twelve defendants include former Servier number two Jean-Philippe Seta, doctors who were members of Afssaps commissions while also being paid as pharma company consultants, and former senator Marie-Therese Hermange who produced a report claimed to be favourable to Servier.
Around 100 witnesses are due to testify, including pulmonologist Irene Frachon who was instrumental in bringing the alleged wrongdoing to light through her campaigning and investigation.
She published a book in 2010, which became the basis of a 2016 French movie called 150 Milligrams.
Speaking before the trial, Ms Frachon said she hoped it would “show the failure of the medical world and its collusion with industry” and put paid to Servier’s “denial of responsibility without end”.
Charles Joseph-Oudin, who will represent about 250 plaintiffs, said victims "want to understand how this medicine could have been left on the market for so long”.
“The laboratory deliberately lied and concealed the drug’s dangerous properties,” he claimed.
"Servier knew that it was selling poison," said 71-year-old Joy Ercole, who took Mediator for six months 10 years ago, and said she suffered heart damage as a result.
"The unlucky ones, like me, are condemned to a slow death. My life is ruined.”
Servier says it did not know about the risk before 2009. Olivier Laureau, president of its laboratories, slammed what he called a “one-sided judicial investigation”.
In 2015, a civil court found Servier negligent for having left "defective" medicine on the market.
Some 10,500 people have issued claims for compensation.
The group says it has made offers of compensation to more than 3,700 victims for a total amount of €164.4 million (£145m), of which €131.8 million have been paid out in return for not taking part in criminal proceedings.
The trial continues.