Born With Bladder On Outside And No Penis, German Man Takes On Drug Giant Bayer

Is this the next David & Goliath battle against a pharmaceutical giant? A German man born with severe birth defects blames it on Duogynon, a drug that can still be bought in pharmacies. Thousands of other potential victims will be watching the Ber

Congenital malformation of the feet caused by maternal drugs like thalidomide (Otisarchives3)
Congenital malformation of the feet caused by maternal drugs like thalidomide (Otisarchives3)
Elke Bodderas

BERLIN - The product can still be bought in pharmacies. The names may be different and the amounts reduced, but the substances are the same. Duogynon is on trial in Berlin – and if what plaintiffs say is true, it paints an awful picture of a drug responsible for people being born without bladders and genitalia, and with deformed extremities.

This could end up becoming another Contergan – thalidomide – a drug that was developed by the German pharmaceutical company Grünenthal and sold as a sleeping pill from the late 1950s through the early 1960s.

Like Contergan, Duogynon has been on the market for decades. It was also prescribed to pregnant women. And the Berlin courtroom looks awfully similar to the one in Contergan cases in the 1960s: with crippled people deformed at birth lined up against a huge pharmaceutical firm. David vs. Goliath.

But the Duogynon case is playing out differently. Class-action lawsuits don't exist in Germany, so the story has become highly personal. It's the fight of a primary school teacher, Andre Sommer, 35, against pharmaceutical giant Bayer, the mother company of Schering, which sold Duogynon in Germany and other countries in the 1960s. Sommer's mother took the hormone drug, prescribed by her gynecologist, in 1975 when she was pregnant.

When her son Andre was born, doctors in the small Bavarian hospital were "dumbfounded by what they saw," says Sommer. The infant's bladder was outside of his body, and instead of a penis "there was nothing."

During the first four years of his life, Sommer underwent nine surgeries. Today, he may have an artificial urinary track – the result of a 13th operation undergone seven years ago - but he still has to wear a urine bag.

When Sommer's mother took Duogynon, it was new on the market and considered highly innovative -- a new-fangled pregnancy test when testing kits and blood tests were still unheard of.

A lifetime of blame

After taking the pills, Sommer's mother experienced discharges and stomach aches. Eight months later Andre was born, deformed. "My mother immediately made the connection to the drug, and to this day she blames herself for my handicaps," Sommer says.

Three years ago, his parents showed him a file of newspaper clippings they'd collected for the past 20 years. There were hundreds of pages devoted to just one subject: Duogynon. Hundreds of stories of people – mainly in Great Britain – whose mothers had taken the Schering-produced drug and who had birth defects.

Sommer first sued Bayer two years ago. It was unsuccessful. He had mainly gone to court to find out more about the case, to establish his right to information; he was seeking the right to consult internal company documents. The court ruled that the matter exceeded the statute of limitations, which made sense procedurally but did not address what Sommer was legally trying to achieve.

Since that first court case in 2010, his case has become famous and Sommer has received about 5,200 e-mails. Most of them are from mothers of children with birth defects, or women who miscarried after they took Duogynon – and women who used the drug to abort. "I answer every single e-mail," Sommer says. "I am trying to find out what happened to my parents – I have to find closure for something that has haunted my mother for decades."

Sommer's court case is a pilot case, a model case. If he's successful, unknown numbers of people in Great Britain and Germany will file their own lawsuits. "What we are looking for is the right to consult the files, and compensation," says Sommer. "But it's not about money. I just want to know what happened back then, how and why that could happen to me. What did the people working at Schering in the 1970's really know about the side effects of Duogynon? What were the problems exactly and why, despite these issues, didn't Schering take the product off the market?"

Some documents have come to light. They show that employees of the company's branch in Great Britain had warned their German colleagues and even recommended that the product be taken off the market. A former employee said he was willing to testify in the Sommer case about the doubts circulating in the company at the time.

Statistical story

By the mid-1970s some experts saw a connection between Duogynon and infants with birth defects but other couldn't find a link. Finally, a study published by the medical journal The Lancet came to the conclusion that statistically, the number of babies deformed because of Duogynon and those born with deformities naturally was the same. According to the study, the heart problems, the missing extremities, and the deformities had nothing to do with Duogynon.

"Studies like that, that look to establish a relation between birth defects and a drug, don't really mean all that much," says Christian Fiala, a Vienna-based doctor and expert in gynecology and neo-natal medicine. "Women who give birth to babies with birth defects will try to find reasons for the defects – often by identifying a guilty party. Many of them focus their attention on drugs and their alleged side effects."

In the 1960's when Duogynon first came on the market, abortion was illegal. Women would look for any way to terminate a pregnancy. "Many women took untold quantities of different pills and other drugs," Fiala says. Statistically, the result was a noticeable increase in aborted fetuses, miscarriages, still-born-babies and birth defects. And determining the medical causes in those cases is no longer possible.

"The hormones in Duogynon are the same as those still used to this day in various types of birth control pills," says Fiala. "I find it difficult to imagine short-term exposure to these substances could have caused so many defects."

While thalidomide victims often present the same visible deformities with stunted extremities, the alleged Duogynon malformations take different forms. Many experts find it difficult to find a connection between a single hormonal substance and handicaps like congenital heart disease, water in the brain, malformed extremities, lack of genitalia, or being born with an open stomach or back.

Andre Sommer's case will most likely not prove that the Schering drug is without the shadow of a doubt the cause of the defects. He himself isn't expecting it to. What he wants is to know the truth about why he was born the way he was. "We want Bayer to make the relevant documents available; we want Bayer to talk to us," he says adding: "If they do, I'm willing to waive my compensation."

He is asking for 55,000 euros. He has already invested several tens of thousands of euros in the case. "I have a small child, a wonderful family," he says, "and I don't intend to spend the next 30 years of my life suing Bayer. But I also know one thing: I want to see the files that decided my fate."

Read the original article in German.

Photo - Otisarchives3

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7 Ways The Pandemic May Change The Airline Industry For Good

Will flying be greener? More comfortable? Less frequent? As the world eyes a post-COVID reality, we look at ways the airline industry has been changing through a pandemic that has devastated air travel.

Ready for (a different kind of) takeoff?

Carl-Johan Karlsson

It's hard to overstate the damage the pandemic has had on the airline industry, with global revenues dropping by 40% in 2020 and dozens of airlines around the world filing for bankruptcy. One moment last year when the gravity became particularly apparent was when Asian carriers (in countries with low COVID-19 rates) began offering "flights to nowhere" — starting and ending at the same airport as a way to earn some cash from would-be travelers who missed the in-flight experience.

More than a year later today, experts believe that air traffic won't return to normal levels until 2024.

But beyond the financial woes, the unprecedented slowdown in air travel may bring some silver linings as key aspects of the industry are bound to change once back in full spin, with some longer-term effects on aviation already emerging. Here are some major transformations to expect in the coming years:

Cleaner aviation fuel

The U.S. administration of President Joe Biden and the airline industry recently agreed to the ambitious goal of replacing all jet fuel with sustainable alternatives by 2050. Already in a decade, the U.S. aims to produce three billion gallons of sustainable fuel — about one-tenth of current total use — from waste, plants and other organic matter.

While greening the world's road transport has long been at the top of the climate agenda, aviation is not even included under the Paris Agreement. But with air travel responsible for roughly 12% of all CO2 emissions from transport, and stricter international regulation on the horizon, the industry is increasingly seeking sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based fuel.

Fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund.

In Germany, state broadcaster Deutsche Welle reports that the world's first factory producing CO2-neutral kerosene recently started operations in the town of Wertle, in Lower Saxony. The plant, for which Lufthansa is set to become the pilot customer, will produce CO2-neutral kerosene through a circular production cycle incorporating sustainable and green energy sources and raw materials. Energy is supplied through wind turbines from the surrounding area, while the fuel's main ingredients are water and waste-generated CO2 coming from a nearby biogas plant.

Farther north, Norwegian Air Shuttle has recently submitted a recommendation to the government that fees imposed on the airline industry should be funneled into a climate fund aimed at developing cleaner aviation fuel, according to Norwegian news site E24. The airline also suggested that the government significantly reduce the tax burden on the industry over a longer period to allow airlines to recover from the pandemic.

Black-and-white photo of an ariplane shot from below flying across the sky and leaving condensation trails

High-flying ambitions for the sector

Joel & Jasmin Førestbird

Hydrogen and electrification

Some airline manufacturers are betting on hydrogen, with research suggesting that the abundant resource has the potential to match the flight distances and payload of a current fossil-fuel aircraft. If derived from renewable resources like sun and wind power, hydrogen — with an energy-density almost three times that of gasoline or diesel — could work as a fully sustainable aviation fuel that emits only water.

One example comes out of California, where fuel-cell specialist HyPoint has entered a partnership with Pennsylvania-based Piasecki Aircraft Corporation to manufacture 650-kilowatt hydrogen fuel cell systems for aircrafts. According to HyPoint, the system — scheduled for commercial availability product by 2025 — will have four times the energy density of existing lithium-ion batteries and double the specific power of existing hydrogen fuel-cell systems.

Meanwhile, Rolls-Royce is looking to smash the speed record of electrical flights with a newly designed 23-foot-long model. Christened the Spirit of Innovation, the small plane took off for the first time earlier this month and successfully managed a 15-minute long test flight. However, the company has announced plans to fly the machine faster than 300 mph (480 km/h) before the year is out, and also to sell similar propulsion systems to companies developing electrical air taxis or small commuter planes.

New aircraft designs

Airlines are also upgrading aircraft design to become more eco-friendly. Air France just received its first upgrade of a single-aisle, medium-haul aircraft in 33 years. Fleet director Nicolas Bertrand told French daily Les Echos that the new A220 — that will replace the old A320 model — will reduce operating costs by 10%, fuel consumption and CO2 emissions by 20% and noise footprint by 34%.

International first class will be very nearly a thing of the past.

The pandemic has also ushered in a new era of consumer demand where privacy and personal space is put above luxury. The retirement of older aircraft caused by COVID-19 means that international first class — already in steady decline over the last decades — will be very nearly a thing of the past. Instead, airplane manufacturers around the world (including Delta, China Eastern, JetBlue, British Airways and Shanghai Airlines) are betting on a new generation of super-business minisuites where passengers have a privacy door. The idea, which was introduced by Qatar Airways in 2017, is to offer more personal space than in regular business class but without the lavishness of first class.

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport

Aerial view of Rome's Fiumicino airport


Hygiene rankings  

Rome's Fiumicino Airport has become the first in the world to earn "the COVID-19 5-Star Airport Rating" from Skytrax, an international airline and airport review and ranking site, Italian daily La Repubblica reports. Skytrax, which publishes a yearly annual ranking of the world's best airports and issues the World Airport Awards, this year created a second list to specifically call out airports with the best health and hygiene standards.

Smoother check-in

​The pandemic has also accelerated the shift towards contactless traveling, with more airports harnessing the power of biometrics — such as facial recognition or fever screening — to reduce touchpoints and human contact. Similar technology can also be used to more efficiently scan physical objects, such as explosive detection. Ultimately, passengers will be able to "check-in" and go through a security screening anywhere at the airports, removing queues and bottlenecks.

Data privacy issues

​However, as pointed out in Canadian publication The Lawyer's Daily, increased use of AI and biometrics also means increased privacy concerns. For example, health and hygiene measures like digital vaccine passports also mean that airports can collect data on who has been vaccinated and the type of vaccine used.

Photo of planes at Auckland airport, New Zealand

Auckland Airport, New Zealand

Douglas Bagg

The billion-dollar question: Will we fly less?

At the end of the day, even with all these (mostly positive) changes that we've seen take shape over the past 18 months, the industry faces major uncertainty about whether air travel will ever return to the pre-COVID levels. Not only are people wary about being in crowded and closed airplanes, but the worth of long-distance business travel in particular is being questioned as many have seen that meetings can function remotely, via Zoom and other online apps.

Trying to forecast the future, experts point to the years following the 9/11 terrorist attacks as at least a partial blueprint for what a recovery might look like in the years ahead. Twenty years ago, as passenger enthusiasm for flying waned amid security fears following the attacks, airlines were forced to cancel flights and put planes into storage.

40% of Swedes intend to travel less

According to McKinsey, leisure trips and visits to family and friends rebounded faster than business flights, which took four years to return to pre-crisis levels in the UK. This time too, business travel is expected to lag, with the consulting firm estimating only 80% recovery of pre-pandemic levels by 2024.

But the COVID-19 crisis also came at a time when passengers were already rethinking their travel habits due to climate concerns, while worldwide lockdowns have ushered in a new era of remote working. In Sweden, a survey by the country's largest research company shows that 40% of the population intend to travel less even after the pandemic ends. Similarly in the UK, nearly 60% of adults said during the spring they intended to fly less after being vaccinated against COVID-19 — with climate change cited as a top reason for people wanting to reduce their number of flights, according to research by the University of Bristol.

At the same time, major companies are increasingly forced to face the music of the environmental movement, with several corporations rolling out climate targets over the last few years. Today, five of the 10 biggest buyers of corporate air travel in the US are technology companies: Amazon, IBM, Google, Apple and Microsoft, according to Taipei Times, all of which have set individual targets for environmental stewardship. As such, the era of flying across the Atlantic for a two-hour executive meeting is likely in its dying days.

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