US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer on Thursday began long-awaited compensation payments to families over a 1996 drug trial blamed for the deaths of 11 children and disabilities in dozens of others.
But even as the compensation process began, the company faced further criticism since only four families were paid in the initial disbursements, while some 200 children participated in the trial of meningitis drug Trovan.
Parents of four of the children who died received cheques of $175,000 each at a ceremony in the northern Nigerian city of Kano, where the trial took place.
A dispute over whether DNA testing should be used to verify the identification of victims had held up compensation payments.
Thursday's payments followed the release of eight results of DNA tests of 546 saliva swabs of claimants, said Abubakar Bashir Wali, who heads the claims verification committee.
"Out of these eight results, four died as a result of their participation in the clinical trial and each is entitled to ... $175,000 as full and final settlement of compensation," Wali said at the ceremony.
The other four claimants suffered deformities and would be paid compensation commensurate with their disabilities, Wali said.
"We are pleased that these four individuals, the first group of qualified claimants...have received compensation," Pfizer said in a statement it issued from New York.
The statement described the initial payments as a "milestone in the implementation of the settlement agreement reached by Kano state government and Pfizer".
"The compensation cannot replace my loss, but will only cushion the hardship the drug trial caused me and my family," Hauwa Umar, who lost a child, said between sobs.
Outside the ceremony, a group of claimants accused the compensation committee of unnecessary delay in the verification and payment of claims.
"It is frustrating that 10 months after taking over 500 swabs for DNA tests only eight results have been released despite assurance that the results would be out within six weeks," Surajo Hassan said.
Hassan said his nephew suffered deafness from the trial.
"The procedures contained in the settlement agreement are quite cumbersome, and we appeal to all stakeholders to be patient...," Wali said at the ceremony.
The payments were part of a $75 million out-of-court-settlement reached between Pfizer and Kano state government in July 2009 over the drug trial.
The trial occurred during a meningitis epidemic that, according to Pfizer, killed nearly 12,000 people.
Pfizer says it was given approval from government authorities and about 200 children were involved in the trial, half of whom were treated with Trovan. It has argued that Trovan helped save lives.
But France-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which was at the time urgently trying to treat meningitis victims in Nigeria, has harshly criticised Pfizer over the trial.