Medical researchers from University College Dublin (UCD) conducted unethical vaccine trials on children in Ireland’s mother-and-baby homes, according to the findings of a government investigation.

Seven vaccine trials took place in the mother-and-baby homes from 1934-73, according to the Commission’s report. Researchers from UCD conducted five vaccine trials on children in mother-and-baby homes from 1960-73, all of which breached medical standards at the time.

Professor Patrick Meenan and Dr Irene Hillery of the Department of Medical Microbiology in UCD conducted the trials on children in the institutions without the consent of their mothers.

Although owning a research license, neither Professor Meenan nor Dr Hillery acquired ministerial approval to conduct research off campus. In contrasting statements, both researchers suggested they conducted the trials under the supervision of the other.

The Trials
Between 1960 and 1961, the researchers trialled a ‘4 in 1’ vaccine called “Quadrivax” on 58 infants and children across a number of institutions. The vaccine was not formally licenced and there is no evidence that Professor Meenan sought a license to import the vaccine from the UK to Ireland. Several children fell ill during this vaccine trial, experiencing vomiting and mild diarrhoea. The vaccine was never concluded to be the cause and all children later recovered.

In 1964, Dr Hillery trialled a measles vaccine on 12 children living in Sean Ross institution. In 1965, Dr Hillery trialled the “Quintuple” ‘5 in 1’ vaccine in Bessborough and Pelletstown mother-and-baby homes. One child died of cardiac and respiratory failure shortly after receiving the vaccine, although the records do not suggest the Quintuple vaccine was the cause. In 1973, Dr Hillery trialled a Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis vaccine on 118 children over a number of locations.

In 2004, the Child Abuse Commission was prevented from investigating the vaccine trials. After a successful legal case by Dr Hillery, Mr Justice O’Caoimh deemed the trials outside of the Commission’s remit as they did not constitute “abuse”. Dr Hillery maintained that an inquiry would have negative implications for her professional reputation. 

The trials in the institutions involved either the Wellcome Foundation or Glaxo Laboratories, who today form the pharmaceutical corporation GlaxoSmithKline. The company is expected to turnover up to $46 billion this year.

No Evidence of Consent
The Commission found no evidence of attempts to seek consent from the mothers in any of the UCD vaccine trials. In some cases, the institution’s matron gave consent on behalf of the children, however, the Commission suggests that the mothers should have been contacted first if their whereabouts were known. 

During this time, it was common practice and the law that consent should be obtained from a patient or their parent/guardian. In the 1960’s, laws were also strengthened to deem an unmarried mother the automatic guardian of their child.

No Apologies Yet

Professor Shane Darcy of The Irish Centre for Human Rights told The College Tribune: “The report concludes that no injury was suffered. [It] takes an overly narrow view of harm in this context and a regressive view of financial redress, suggesting that it may be impossible in many cases and even unfair to the present generation. 

“While the Commission does not address the question of responsibility in this context, it may be the case that entities who conducted and benefitted from these vaccine trials could face potential liabilities. 

“At the very least, the pharmaceutical companies and universities in question should acknowledge their role in the vaccine trials and apologise to survivors. Apology without material reparation, however, may prove to be hollow”.

When asked for an official apology from the university for its participation in these trials, a spokesperson told The College Tribune: “UCD is looking into the matter following the Final Report of the Commission of Investigation into Mother and Baby Homes.”

Earlier this week, the findings were released of a Commission set up to investigate the Mother and Baby homes in Ireland. Spanning from 1922-1998, the human rights abuses unearthed by the report, including the deaths of up to 9,000 children, has led to a harsh public outcry.

Professor Meenan was the former President of the Medical Council of Ireland, Dean of Medicine at UCD and helped develop the polio vaccine. He was also the Auditor of the L&H Society between 1940-41. Professor Meenan died in 2008. Dr Hillery died in 2014. 

Conor Capplis – Senior Reporter