Victims of a problematic Pfizer drug trial in Nigeria have been DNA tested to determine compensation [Al Jazeera]

US pharmaceutical giant Pfizer has begun 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 the payments, which started on Thursday, were initially distributed only to four families, while some 200 children participated in the trial of meningitis drug, Trovan.

Parents of four of the children who died as a result of the trial received cheques of $175,000 each at a reception 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.

It had been earlier reported that the test scheme has intimidated families of victims of the drug trial from following through in the compensation process.

Thursday's payments followed the release of eight results out of the 546 saliva swab DNA tests, 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 reception.

The trial drug left the other four whose DNA results came back with permanent deformities, and Wali said they would be compensated commensurate with their disabilities.

It was not clear how the disabilities could be quantified monetarily.

"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.

'Frustrating' DNA process

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.

Pfizer issued a statement from New York, saying: "We are pleased that these four individuals, the first group of qualified claimants...have received compensation".

The statement described the initial payments as a "milestone in the implementation of the settlement agreement reached by Kano state government and Pfizer".

The payments were part of a $75m out-of-court settlement reached between Pfizer and the Kano state government in July 2009 over the drug trial, which 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.

Last year, the pharmaceutical giant hired investigators to find evidence of corruption in Kano's government.

France-based medical charity Doctors Without Borders, which was at the time urgently trying to treat meningitis patients in Nigeria, has harshly criticised Pfizer over the trial.

Source: Agencies