Professional Drug Testing Gives Money-Making Opportunities To The Underrepresented

By Victoria Kim 05/12/16

As clinical trials multiply, people on the margins of society are offering themselves as drug-testing "guinea pigs" to earn a living.

Professional Drug Testing Gives Money-Making Opportunities To The Underrepresented

Being a “guinea pig” for pharmaceutical companies can earn you a quick buck, but from a sociological standpoint, the type of people who offer themselves to be used in drug trials is concerning. That’s the perspective of Jill Fisher, a sociologist at the Center for Bioethics at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who spoke to NPR about the demographics of drug trial subjects.

A decade ago, the number of studies registered on was 35,854. This year, as of May 10, that number climbed to 215,197, thus raising the demand for human guinea pigs to test new drugs, surgical procedures, medical devices, and more. Drug trials account for the bulk of these studies, most of them taking place outside of the United States, particularly in Africa, Central America, and East Asia.

According to Fisher, certain groups of people tend to be drawn to participating in drug trials, like ex-prisoners who have trouble finding a job due to their criminal backgrounds. “I think that says a lot about our system overall and what kind of opportunities we have for people in a period of post-incarceration,” Fisher told NPR. 

Demographic differences exist between early and late stage trials, as well. According to Fisher, in early trials, the vast majority of participants are “underrepresented minorities,” typically black or Hispanic men depending on the region of the U.S. But in later stage trials, participants of color are lacking. These trials usually involve patients who could benefit from the drug other than getting paid.

“I am very concerned about the fact that we’re using a segment of our population who might not ever be able to afford the drugs that they’re part of testing, and not compensating them perhaps to the degree that we really should,” said Fisher. Pharmaceutical companies stand to gain billions in revenue from the experimental drugs.

In 2013, Atlantic writer Stephanie Kelly shed light on the shady nature of drug testing in developing countries. Kelly argued that people in places like Africa and India are being taken advantage of by drug companies and playing Russian roulette with their health. Many have died as a result of botched trials. These people are often desperate for money to support their families, Kelly said, and are often misled by drug companies as a result of language barriers and blatant misinformation.

For people like Paul Clough, a 37-year-old professional guinea pig, participating in these trials can earn him thousands of dollars in just a few weeks, he told NPR. Clough said being a guinea pig is ideal for a person in his situation. “I can’t get a regular job because I have a couple of legal problems in my background,” he said. Drug companies are “only looking at what your body does, not what you did.”

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Victoria is interested in anything that has to do with how mind-altering substances impact society. Find Victoria on LinkedIn or Tumblr

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