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Roche vilified in Davos for transplant drug

Roche's "Corporate Flexibility Advisor" was on hand in the person of comic Patrick Frey

The Swiss pharmaceutical giant Roche has been slammed by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) for supporting China’s “unethical transplantation practices”.

Roche received two “shame” prizes at the Public Eye Awards in Davos for conducting research on transplant patients in China without knowing the origin of the organs donated.

The Basel-based company won the 2010 Swiss Award in addition to the People’s Award – the latter based on an online poll. The presentation is held each year on the sidelines of the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum.

It was “highly likely” that some of the organs used in a Roche study in China were taken from executed prisoners, the source of 90 per cent of all transplanted organs in the country, according to the awards’ organisers, the Berne Declaration and Greenpeace Switzerland.

Roche is testing the effectiveness of the drug Cell Cept on hundreds of kidney and liver transplant patients. The drug weakens the body’s immune system so it is more likely to accept a transplanted organ.

The Public Eye Awards presenter, German actress Julia Jentsch, said Roche could not exclude the possibility that some of the organs it uses in its clinical trials come from executed prisoners.

This not only contradicts ethical principles but also international norms such as those from the World Health Organization (WHO), the Berne Declaration said.

A Roche spokeswoman told the AFP news agency that it did not have the right to know the origins of the organs used, but that the company was “working to improve the situation” in the hope that the Chinese authorities would conform to these standards.


The WHO’s principles on organ transplantation call for transparency regarding organ donations as well as traceability of the origin of the transplanted organs.

The Transplantation Society, an international organisation which draws up guidelines on best practices and ethics, is opposed to the recovery of organs from executed prisoners.

“Because of the restrictions in liberty in a prison environment it is unlikely that prisoners are truly free to make independent decisions and thus an autonomous informed consent for donation cannot be obtained,” the society says on its website.

“The drug has been on the market for years, which begs the question why it must now be tested on Chinese,” Arne Schwarz, a human rights expert on China, told

Marketing strategy

Schwarz, who carried out his Roche-China research on behalf of the Berne Declaration, presumes the company is doing so for marketing purposes, so its product becomes better known among Chinese transplantation specialists.

Cell Cept is already approved for sale in China and, according to the NGO, will be administered there in the same dose as it is for non-Chinese.

Schwarz said he happened upon the fact that organs removed from prisoners were being used in transplantations while travelling in China. NGOs have been critical of China’s transplantation practices since 2006.

Schwarz began to dig deeper and made the connection with the Roche clinical trials.

Unwanted prize

Not surprisingly, no Roche representative was in Davos to pick up the prize.

However, Swiss comedian Patrick Frey took the stage as a Roche “Corporate Flexibility Advisor” and gave the company some sarcastic tips on how to deal with the award.

The Berne Declaration says the awards are meant to “remind the players of the global economy who impact people and the environment with destructive business practices that actions have consequences – in this case for the image of the company”.

It said the disregard of human rights in favour of commercial interests was unacceptable.

Eveline Kobler in Davos, (adapted from German by Dale Bechtel)

The Royal Bank of Canada took home the Global Award, being named “the world’s filthiest ATM … for facilitating the extraction of oil from tar sands in Alberta like no other financial institution”.

Swiss pharmaceutical company Roche was handed the Swiss Award and People’s Award for supporting China’s dubious organ transplantation practices.

The newly created Greenwash Award went to the United Nations CEO Water Mandate, which is part of the UN’s Global Compact. Set up to create transparency and ensure water sustainability, the Public Eye jury sees it as a fig leaf enabling companies like Nestlé and Dow Chemical to continue the systematic privatisation of water resources.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR