“THE fraud and corruption involved in these [tafenoquine and mefloquine] drug trials is huge,” said retired Australian Army Warrant Officer Colin Brock in his testimony to a 2018 Senate inquiry hearing in the northern Queensland garrison city of Townsville. “The lying and deceit is incomprehensible.”
In today’s post we return to the Australian Army Malaria Institute’s (AMI) notorious clinical trials of tafenoquine in Bougainville (Papua New Guinea), East Timor and Australia at the turn of the century. As part of a commercial arrangement with the pharmaceutical industry which a former Director of the U.S. Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR) described in 2018 as “naive” and “desperate”, the Australian Defense Forces subjected almost 4,000 troops to a series of highly controversial antimalarial drug trials considered to have been “manifestly unethical.”
One of these trials was the AMI “Study 033” for tafenoquine vs mefloquine prophylaxis involving a total of 654 Australian troops from the Townsville-based 1st Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (1 RAR) and supporting units. Among the 1 RAR battalion group soldiers deployed to the East Timor UN peacekeeping mission for seven months in 2000-2001, 492 were given the experimental drug tafenoquine, while a further 162 were given mefloquine.
Eight years after this trial, scientists from WRAIR (which developed both drugs) found that “tafenoquine is the only antimalarial more neurotoxic than mefloquine,” a drug from the same quinolines family, widely regarded as a suicide pill.
Mr Brock’s 20-year Army career included operational deployments to Somalia, East Timor and Afghanistan. During the East Timor peacekeeping deployment, then Corporal Brock commanded a mortar section of nine soldiers. He was one of dozens of drug trial subjects who testified to the Senate inquiry, and one of more than a hundred who made written submissions. Here are some highlights from his hard-hitting testimony, which can be found in full here.
At the beginning of the year 2000, 1 RAR was warned out for deployment to East Timor. I was a section commander in Mortar Platoon, Support Company. My section consisted of nine men, including me.
I am not sure of the specific date—I think it was sometime in September 2000—a battalion parade was held on the main parade ground of 1 RAR. We were formed up in companies and the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel John Calagari, briefed the battalion on a new malaria drug or drugs that we all were to take to prevent malaria. We were told that it was a trial to benefit the Defence Force. I now know the drugs to be mefloquine and tafenoquine. Lieutenant Colonel John Calagari then informed the battalion, ‘This drug is voluntary, but if you do not consent to take this drug, you will not deploy to East Timor.’ I can categorically state, 100 per cent, that he did say this. There was numerous talk about it after the parade. No-one in the battalion was going to say, ‘No, we won’t take it,’ as everyone wanted to deploy. If you knew about the Army culture, that is what you would want to do. If we knew of the consequences of these drugs, I and a lot of others would have told them to find someone else.
In my later years in Defence, I knew there was something not right with me. I thought it might have been PTSD, as I’d completed numerous deployments to some of the worst countries on Earth, but it was something else. My hearing was failing. There was ringing in my ears. I was having dizzy spells; vertigo issues, which I still have today; bouts of depression and anxiety; and anger issues. But, like a lot of people in Defence, you just put up with it. I loved being deployed, and nothing really fazed me.
I think it was in March 2016 that a forum was held at the Townsville RSL, which I attended with a number of other people who were severely affected by these drugs. A number of dignitaries attended, with key speakers and subject matter experts. Defence was represented by Air Vice Marshal Tracy Smart, Commander Joint Health. I have no words for Tracy Smart. All she did was deny any wrongdoing by Defence, saying the drug trials were conducting morally and ethically, and there was nothing wrong with us. She had no answers for us, just denial. One of my close friends, Chris Styles, had an open argument with her at the forum which was captured on visual and audio. Chris committed suicide less than two months later. Tracy Smart is a Defence toe-the-line person. She is fully aware of these drugs and does not care.
In May 2016, I was contacted by Brigadier Andrew Dunn as part of the IGADF inquiry into allegations of unethical and unlawful use of antimalarial drugs in Defence. This was a phone interview which lasted around 90 minutes. I answered truthfully all the questions asked of me. I have a clear recollection of these events, and one in particular. The main question I was asked was: what did Lieutenant Colonel John Caligari say on the parade ground as to the drug being voluntary? I answered: ‘John Caligari said, “The drug trial is voluntary, but if you do not consent to the trial you will not deploy to East Timor.”‘ As I said, I am 100 per cent correct that I heard this. I would not lie about this. I know the man’s reputation is at stake; I would not lie.
I received the findings for my part in this inquiry a while later. The report suggests that I basically lied to the inquiry—and so did four or five others that were with us—finding that John Caligari had never said those words. I was gobsmacked. He was an officer I respected, trusted and looked up to, as I had worked for him again in later years. He categorically denied it. There are hundreds of people from that 1 RAR parade ground who will agree with me. We are not liars. What would I have to gain by saying this? Nothing. Also, if you look at submission No.80, I don’t know if you have that with you, what he’s said in there—I saw that the other day in the submissions—is what I’m saying.
Everyone affected by these drugs wants answers. My section in East Timor consisted of nine fit men. Six out of the nine are now experiencing all of these symptoms and are unable to work; that’s a 75 per cent ratio. Why were Defence used as guinea pigs? Why were we forced to take these drugs? What do we have to do to get help—more suicides? There is blood on the hands of the malaria institute, Defence and the leaders of these so-called trials. I personally have been to two funerals as a direct result of these horrendous drugs, and it will keep happening. Just three days ago a former member of 1 RAR who was on these trials committed suicide. That was three days ago. It’s still happening. The fraud and corruption involved in these trials is huge. The lying and deceit is incomprehensible. People and organisations need to be held accountable for the damage they have done to hundreds if not thousands of officers and soldiers.
This is the first in a series of posts highlighting the testimonies of some of the thousands of ADF personnel who were subjected to these drug trials, which have been described as “the most shameful chapter in the recent history of the ADF.” Over the coming weeks we will post more of these first hand testimonies, from the subjects of the unethical drug trials which provided much of the basis for the 2018 regulatory approvals of Arakoda® in the US and Kodatef® in Australia. The evidence we already have is sufficient to prove that the official report from Study 033 and some of the other AMI tafenoquine trials are fraudulent.