A Brush with Big Pharma

(i) Journalist Christina Spencer's article in the Kingston Whig Standard

(ii) My letter commenting on this.

(iii) Response to my letter from "Big Pharma."

(iv) My submitted, but unpublished, response.

Prizer Head Appointed to Board November 24th 2009

OTTAWA - A parliamentary committee wants to know why a drug-company executive was appointed to the board of the independent public agency that funds health research in Canada. The health committee's Nov. 30 review comes after NDP health critic Judy Wasylycia-Leis complained the appointment of Dr. Bernard Prigent, vice-president of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research is a "potential conflict of interest."

    "Having the drug companies' executives deciding health research directions is like having the big bad wolf directing the three little pigs on how to build their homes, " she said in a statement. CIHR is the main federal funding agency for health research.

    In an email, Prigent said, "With my many years of pharmaceutical research and development experience, my appointment will support CIHR's mission of creating new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians and a strengthened health-care system." CIHR spokesman David Coulombe said Prigent was appointed "for his skills, experience and personal competencies."


To Editor, Kingston Whig Standard  November 26th 2009

Interests of 'Big Pharma' don't Coincide with those of Medical Researchers

Thank you for reporting that our top publicly funded medical research agency, the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), has appointed the vice-president of a major pharmaceutical company to its governing council ('Pfizer Head Appointed to Board,' Nov. 24). Quite rightly, a parliamentary committee is investigating the appointment. Your readers might like a little more background.

    As noted in my book Tomorrow's Cures Today? (2000), despite massive advertising to the contrary, the interests of industry and those who seek progress in medical research, do not coincide. The worst nightmare of the president of a major pharmaceutical company is that a research break-through leads to the redundancy of a drug in which the company has heavily invested. It is in the interest of drug companies to maintain the status quo. They try to ensure that funds for research are carefully directed - investigators willing to engage in clinical trials and research to increase the effectiveness of existing drugs receive a generous bounty. This draws scarce resources (laboratory space, skilled assistants) away from those engaged in uncensored creative research where critical advances in knowledge are more likely to occur. Thus, potential loose cannons are held in check.

    In the 1990s the pharmaceutical industry argued successfully for legislation extending the period of patent protection (Bill C-91). This made it more difficult for generic drug manufacturers to force down prices. In return, the major companies promised to relieve a taxpayer burden by providing "matching funds" for CIHR-supported projects. It soon emerged that "matching funds," to the extent that the promise was lived up to, amounted to a Trojan horse. Funding from the CIHR was made conditional on a researcher first getting industry support. So the industry gained a major say on which projects would, or would not, get CIHR support. Protests appeared in the Globe & Mail (May 5, 2001) from myself, in the journal Science (June 24, 2005) from 40 of Canada's leading researchers, and again in the Globe & Mail (July 7, 2005) from Nobel Prize winning scientist John Polanyi. It now seems that all this, and the widely publicized struggles of Nancy Olivieri against "Big Pharma," have been to no avail.

Donald R. Forsdyke, Kingston.

Criticism of Appointment is Based on Innuendo, not Fact November 28th 2009

Re: the letter "Interests of 'Big Pharma' don't coincide with those of medical researchers," Nov. 26). The debate over the appointment of a seasoned scientist with private-sector experience to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) is based on innuendo rather than fact. The criticisms are unfounded and threaten to derail Canada's efforts to improve health research in this country.

    The CIHR should be commended for appointing Dr. Bernard Prigent to its governing council. He brings strong international credentials in the area of pharmaceutical research and development and has been recognized by his peers in the scientific and academic community for championing principled partnerships between industry, academia and governments aimed at improving Canada's performance in health research. He is eminently qualified for the position.

    Furthermore, the governing council of the CIHR does not make decisions with respect to which researchers or projects will be funded, as this is the responsibility of the scientific council, based on the advice of individual peer review panels.

    Dr. Prigent's appointment is also consistent with the CIHR's mission, which is "the creation of new knowledge and its translation into improved health for Canadians, more effective health services and products, and a strengthened Canadian health-care system." The CIHR and the innovative pharmaceutical industry have been partnering for many years to further research in this country. Since 2000, we have together invested more than $360 million through the CIHR/Rx&D Collaborative Research Program. This has enabled our best and brightest researchers in many outstanding universities to further their scientific investigations aimed at treating and preventing disease, and improve the live of patients.

    Rather than attacking private sector researchers like Dr. Prigent, we should be opening doors to develop principled partnerships that strengthen Canada's research capacity so that we can become a global leader in life sciences.

Russell Williams President, Canada's Research-Based Pharmaceutical Companies, Ottawa.

Editor, Kingston Whig Standard  (not accepted for publication)

Criticism of appointment: more "innuendos"

"Having the big bad wolf directing the three little pigs on how to build their homes" is how the NDP Health Spokesman described the appointment of a drug company executive to the Council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR; see Christina Spencer's report "Pfizer head appointed to board," Whig Standard, Nov. 24). I gave this statement factual support ("Interests of 'Big Pharma' don't coincide with those of medical researchers," Nov. 26), However, a representative of the pharmaceutical industry declared my case to be one of "innuendo, rather than fact" ("Criticism of appointment is based on innuendo, not fact," Nov. 28). Here are a few more "innuendos" masquerading as "facts."

    In the 1990s the industry, hailing the dawn of a new era of partnership with medical researchers, sponsored full-page advertisements bearing the names of a medical school dean and several members of the medical establishment. An analyst in a major medical journal expressed surprise at their naivete (Wayne Kondro, The Lancet 1993).

    The truth soon dawned. An article in University Affairs noted that "the much vaunted program that is supposed to pump $200 million from the pharmaceutical industry into university research over five years has fallen far behind expectations." Indeed, "some academics who went out on a limb to support the program initially, often against the views of their colleagues who didn't believe industry would come through with the money, now feel betrayed" (Peggy Berkovitz, 1996).

    Of course, "Big Pharma" makes important contributions to the health of Canadians and has talented personnel. But there have to be checks and balances. For those working at the "cutting edge" of research, the conflict between academic and corporate interests continually surfaces. For examples see a fine article by journalist Anne McIlroy ("Under siege in the ivory tower;" Globe & Mail, Sept. 8, 2001). She also noted that "it is retired academics -- who no longer fear retribution who are able to speak out. The younger ones, who are most vulnerable, can't really say anything." Given the importance of drug company advertising revenues to the survival of newspapers, we hope that the Spencers and McIlroys will continue to "speak out" if only in the form of "innuendos." More "innuendos" masquerading as "facts" may be found at the webpage of a retired academic: http://www.queensu.ca/academia/forsdyke/peerrev.htm

Donald Forsdyke, Kingston

Toronto Globe & Mail  - December 3rd 2009

The Globe & Mail was a bit slow in getting into the act, but when it did there was a fine article by Andre Picard entitled "Should a Big Pharma Executive Help Steer Health Research?" He noted the "major ethical transgressions of Pfizer in recent years" and "while there is no suggestion Dr. Prigent was personally involved in the malfeasance, ethicists argue that his association with the company could breed cynicism and compromise the scientific integrity of the CIHR."

    See also: "In Praise of Smallness" Click Here

    For: Data Analysis on Law of Diminishing Returns in research funding. (Click Here)

Return to L'affaire Olivieri (Click Here)

Return to Peer Review Index (Click Here)

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This page was established in December 2009 and was last edited 11 Nov 2020 by Donald Forsdyke