Becky McClain was a molecular biologist working for Pfizer Inc. when she was allegedly injured on the job after being exposed to a highly secretive virus in the company’s Groton, Connecticut, laboratories. McClain filed a number of complaints with Pfizer in an effort to address safety concerns that put both workers and the public at risk. But instead of fixing the problem, Pfizer turned its back on Ms. McClain’s complaints and fired her.
Today, two years after winning a $1.27 million judgment against Pfizer and an additional $910,000 for attorney’s fees and punitive damages awarded by a judge last year, Ms. McClain has become a reluctant whistleblower and activist, but one who is committed to the fight in which she has found herself.
“We’ve got a serious public health and safety issue that’s not being addressed,” Ms. MClain told The Day. “It’s like a horrible weight on my shoulder,” she added.
Ms. McClain says the virus she was exposed to in Pfizer’s laboratories left her with a condition that caused periodic bouts of paralysis for nearly a decade. According to The Day, “Pfizer fought McClain for years in court over releasing records that would indicate the kind of virus to which she was exposed, with the company claiming the documents contained trade secrets.” But when a judge ordered Pfizer to release the exposure records, Pfizer allegedly said it couldn’t locate them.
Ms. McClain now travels the country for occasional speaking engagements about the dangers of unregulated biotech labs operated by pharmaceutical corporations like Pfizer. According to the Global Justice Ecology Project, which recently invited her to speak, Ms. McClain’s experience with Pfizer “provides a cautionary tale for the kinds of releases of organisms we can expect to see more of in the future.”
According to The Day, “McClain said the ability of Pfizer to deny the existence of the virus she says caused her harm only exposes the problem of allowing the biotech industry to police itself.”
“We were at risk to exposure that could cause us harm,” Ms. McClain said in a recent speech she made in California. “We also were at risk to carry an infectious agent out into the public.”
Ms. McClain knows first-hand the value of whistleblower laws when it comes to public health and safety, but acknowledges that justice can take a long time. Not surprisingly, despite Ms. McClain’s clear victory, Pfizer has chosen to bog down the court system and waste taxpayer money by appealing the jury verdict. Ms. MClain has not received any compensation as a result.
Additionally, Ms. McClain said that whistleblowers and injured workers tend to hit a lot of roadblocks when they attempt to confront a safety issue or take a company to task for unsafe practices.
“We need whistleblower laws that are efficient and swift, since the advanced technologies … can be dangerous and can pose a significant and immediate threat to the public,” she said.