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Pfizer ignored safety matters, former employee testifies in trial

By Lee Howard

Publication: The Day

Published March 17. 2010 4:00AM   Updated March 17. 2010 8:25AM
Plaintiff claims she was fired for raising concerns

Hartford - A former Pfizer Inc. scientist testified Tuesday in U.S. District Court that she was removed from a company-sponsored safety committee after pressing complaints about dangerous conditions in the pharmaceutical firm's Groton research laboratories.

Molecular biologist Becky McClain of Deep River, who was fired by Pfizer in 2005 in what she claims in a federal civil suit was retaliation for pressing safety concerns, said scientists today are handling much more dangerous substances than existed a quarter century ago.

These genetically engineered, novel viruses - which she referred to as "genetic missiles" that target specific diseases - have the capability of infecting not only lab workers, but the public at large, she added during a portion of her testimony that eventually was struck from the record by Judge Vanessa L. Bryant.

Yet the labs where she worked at Pfizer's Groton campus did not reflect the new realities, McClain said. Lab benches where dangerous viruses were used for experiments, for instance, were placed next to desk areas and computers where scientists worked unprotected, she said, and other biohazards were placed in refrigerators and freezers near areas where workers routinely ate lunch.

As a member of the company's safety committee, McClain said she pressed complaints on behalf of other scientists and herself but was eventually rebuffed and removed from the committee.

She was first instructed in an e-mail from Mary Saltarelli, chair of the safety committee, to stop talking about safety issues and not to document her concerns with other committee members, McClain testified.

Another e-mail, this one from Pfizer executive John Vickers, later came to the conclusion that no one had ever informed him that the laboratory arrangements were unsafe, according to testimony, despite McClain's contention that she had informed Vickers of the problems.

After her boss, John Hambor, received the Vickers e-mail, McClain said in direct examination by her attorney Steve Fitzgerald that she heard him yell from his office, "I can't believe this, I can't believe this." McClain later quoted Hambor as saying, "I told you this is going to hurt my career. It's very obvious we shouldn't be talking about these issues."

Hambor has denied that he expressed concern about McClain's safety complaints affecting his own career.

McClain said she later confronted Pfizer executive John McNeish about his lack of action over the safety problems, specifically the issue of finding containers with the cancer-causing substance ethidium bromide in hallways where scientists ate and drank. His response, according to McClain, was to say, "Becky, I worked as a grad student with ebidium bromide, and I never wore gloves with it, and I don't have cancer yet."

Pfizer has denied all allegations that there were safety problems in the Groton labs, saying the Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted a monthslong investigation and found no violations. Pfizer also has denied allegations that the company retaliated against McClain or that it denied her freedom of speech in pushing safety reforms.

A third charge - that Pfizer had engaged in willful and wanton misconduct by exposing McClain to a virus that caused serious health problems and prevented her from working - was thrown out about a week before the trial's start this week. Attorneys and witnesses danced around this allegation again Tuesday, with Judge Bryant instructing McClain not to make any statements about public health and safety and siding with Pfizer in a series of objections every time testimony veered into the direction of the public's possible exposure to a dangerous virus emanating from the company's labs.

Bad feelings were evident on both sides during the second day of the case, officially known as Becky McClain v. Pfizer Inc. But the judge fired the most shocking salvo out of earshot of jurors when she announced at the start that McClain's husband, Mark, had approached his wife's former boss, Hambor, and accused him Monday of being paid to perjure himself.

"I am very disturbed to know of the antics which occurred in this courthouse yesterday," Judge Bryant said. "Intimidating a witness subverts the judicial process. We are a nation of laws. We are not the Hatfields and McCoys."

Mark McClain, who is to be a character witness for his wife, remained in the courtroom Tuesday with the understanding that he would have no further contact with Hambor.

Hambor, who started the day on the witness stand, continued to defend his 2003 performance review of Becky McClain as needing improvement, despite the fact she won a major award from Pfizer that year, along with the rest of Hambor's team. Hambor said McClain had problems juggling multiple projects and testified that she had not completed a major project she had been expected to finish by the end of the year.

"The team was counting on it," he said.

Defenders of the 52-year-old McClain have said that by this time Hambor was conspiring with other Pfizer colleagues to make it more difficult for her to complete projects.

Hambor, no longer employed by Pfizer though he recently filed a job application with the company, also testified that he ran into McClain at a stem-cell conference last year and approached her to ask how she was doing. She reacted by following him around, taking pictures, he said.

"She seemed to be focusing on me," he said.

The picture-taking had made him uncomfortable, he said, though McClain said she was nervous and used the camera only to ward off Hambor's unwelcome approach.

l.howard@theday.com

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