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Briefs (right)

Serono to Pay $704M in Pharma
Conspiracy, Kickback

By Ross Kerber and Charlie Savage

Swiss drugmaker Serono SA Monday said it has agreed to pay $704 million to settle criminal and civil charges that it illegally promoted its AIDS drug in one of the biggest sums collected in the government’s growing scrutiny of pharmaceutical firms.

The company’s Serono Labs unit of Rockland, Mass., agreed to plead guilty to charges it conspired to market Serostim by supplying doctors diagnostic software that was not approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The software, prosecutors said, led to an increase in demand for the drug prescribed to treat wasting in AIDS patients.

The company also pleaded guilty to offering doctors all-expense paid trips to a medical conference in Cannes, France, in return for writing prescriptions of Serostim, an arrangement that US Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales blasted as “The ‘Cannes Kickback’ campaign.”

In all, prosecutors said that nearly 85 percent of the prescriptions written for Serono’s growth hormone Serostim weren’t necessary. Some excess demand came from bodybuilders who, like AIDS patients, wanted to gain weight and bulk up.

Fearing Ukrainian-Style Uprising,
Belarus Cracks Down

By Steven Lee Myers

Ten men gathered in a dim, three-room apartment one recent evening to plan the unseating of this country’s autocratic president, Alexander G. Lukashenko.

They have little money, no slogans, no songs, and, so far, no color like the orange that thousands rallied around during the popular uprising last year in Ukraine.

What they have is a hope, admittedly slight, that the wave of democracy that has washed over Ukraine and other former Soviet republics in the last two years might come here next.

“Lukashenko has exhausted the possibility of strengthening his power,” said Alexander Milinkevich, a physicist who leads an improbable coalition of politicians and civic leaders mounting an even more improbable challenge in next year’s presidential election.

“Sometimes he thinks if he raises wages a bit, people will love him again, but not everything is measured by bread and salo,” he said, referring to the salted pork fat that is considered a delicacy in this part of the world. “There is such a notion as human dignity.”

Few here or abroad believe that Belarus’ beleaguered opposition can win the election, expected before July. But with American and European support, its effort is shaping up as a new struggle over democracy in what was once the Soviet Union. It is likely to inflame tensions not only with Lukashenko’s government, but also that of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, whose government opposes Western efforts to democratize former Soviet republics.

Worries Over China and Bird
Flu Grow

By Keith Bradsher

As governments in North America and Europe grow increasingly worried about the possibility of a global epidemic of bird flu, one crucial player is China. Yet for now, much of what China is doing to manage a possible epidemic is a mystery.

China is not only the most populous nation, but also the biggest producer of poultry. It has a quarter of the world’s chickens, two-thirds of the world’s domesticated ducks and almost nine-tenths of the world’s domesticated geese, statistics from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization show.

The first known case of the A(H5N1) strain of avian influenza was found in 1996 in a goose in China.

While the Chinese government insists that no poultry in the country has the disease now, Hong Kong University scientists who have studied the genetic evolution of the virus wrote in Nature in July that infected migratory birds in western China appeared to have contracted the disease in southern China.

The virus has since spread from western China to East Asia, Russia, Kazakhstan, Turkey and Romania.

Chinese health authorities in Beijing have called repeatedly for national vigilance against the disease. But they have refused to share virus samples from infected, wild birds this year with international organizations and have quarreled with researchers who have suggested that the disease remains a problem.

Delphi Executives Take Pay Cuts

By Jeremy W. Peters

After a surge of criticism for increasing the pay of company executives while asking hourly employees to accept deep wage cuts, the chairman of Delphi said Monday that he and other managers were reducing their salaries.

Robert S. Miller, the corporate turnaround specialist who is leading Delphi through Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection for $1.5 million a year, said his new salary would be $1 starting Jan. 1.

The company’s president, Rodney O’Neal, also said he would take a 20 percent reduction to his $1.15 million salary, and 20 other executives are to accept 10 percent cuts.

“In the months ahead, I’m going to have to be explaining to thousands of our dedicated workers why they are going to have to take significant reductions in wages and benefits,” Miller said in a conference call with reporters. “I just couldn’t find a way to look them in the eye and tell them I should be paid a million-dollar salary for delivering that message.”

But Miller said he had no plans to return the $3 million signing bonus he received when Delphi offered him the chairman and chief executive post in June. “Others might speculate, Should I have done more? Should I have done less?,” he said. “I think I did the right thing.”