Can Pharmaceutical Testing Ever Be Ethical Under Capitalism?

Sep 3, 2020


Fisher follows participants through weeks-long clinical trials, some regularly relying on the trials' financial compensation as a main source of income.
Credit NYU Press

Before a pharmaceutical treatment can hit the pharmacy shelves, manufacturers must prove the product’s safety through a series of trials. Phase I trials are on healthy participants to find the best dosage with the fewest side effects and to prove the treatment is not unsafe.


Phase II and III trials involve more widespread testing on ill participants to demonstrate the treatment’s effectiveness and any side effects. In Phase I, the participants receive financial compensation for undergoing the experimental treatment and are typically recruited from African American and Latino communities.

Yet, in the latter two trial phases, the demographics shift. Minorities are generally underrepresented and no financial compensation is offered. The benefit is instead a potentially effective treatment.

Host Anita Rao talks with Jill A. Fisher about her decade of research into clinical trials and her new book “Adverse Events: Race, Inequality and the Testing of New Pharmaceuticals” (NYU/2020), in which she delves into the underbelly of Phase I trials through statistics and interviews with trial participants, clinic staff and leaders in the pharmaceutical industry. Fisher is a professor of social medicine at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.