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East: Austrian Authorities Investigate Blood Scandal

By Michael Leidig

Vienna, 8 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Investigators in Austria this week have conducted house-to-house searches and seized hundreds of files and samples after a tip off that contaminated blood was being shipped through a network of international firms for use by patients at hospitals in China and India.

Reports say the blood was shipped in by the firm Albovina from Africa to Eastern Europe, then made into the blood product albumin and relabelled to indicate it had originated in Eastern Europe.

An Austrian government spokesman tells RFE/RL the blood product was processed using an Israeli firm, then shipped to a duty-free zone outside Austria, where it was out of the country's jurisdiction. From there, it went on to a chain of firms in Switzerland, France, Latvia and the U.S.

The firm, Albovina, which was based on the outskirts of Linz in the province of Upper Austria, is reported to have made millions of dollars on the blood-product deal.

Prosecutors offered few details, saying it is not even clear if any of the product was ever used. But, it has been reported that the case involves thousands of liters of blood.

Austria's Health Ministry has confirmed that tests of samples seized at the firm's warehouse were contaminated with Hepatitis B and HIV.

Austria's Red Cross has moved swiftly to reassure people that Austrian stocks were not affected, pointing out all the albumin was destined for export. The Health Ministry has said it is not yet known if the product that was sold was contaminated in the same way as the samples that were seized.

News of the blood scandal broke in Austrian newspapers Monday, but authorities now say they have been investigating possible charges of professional fraud, and causing danger through transmittable diseases against the firm and its staff for a year.

Six people are currently in custody. Health officials -- acting on a tip off from a former employee -- raided the offices and storage facilities and seized all the blood products and documents.

The public prosecutors office says it is examining to what extent foreign firms were aware of what was going on.