Don’t miss Helen Epstein’s brilliant exposé in the latest issue of The New York Review of Books. She shows how the profit motive shapes the “preparedness” industry — worth $10 billion worldwide in 2009 (the year of the Flu Pandemic That Wasn’t).
I’ve covered the profit-motivated thinking behind vaccine recommendations generally and specifically with regard to flu immunization. Epstein’s main interest is in the role of pharmaceutical companies in promoting oseltamivir (Tamiflu®) and other neuraminidase inhibitors as public health responses to flu fears. Her story features the brilliant work of Tom Jefferson and colleagues, and the shady behavior of the global biotech firm Roche in trying to block Jefferson et al.’s efforts to investigate the safety of neuraminidase-blocking agents.
Jefferson was lead author on the Cochrane Collaborations’ main paper on neuraminidase inhibitors for flu prevention and treatment. But when reports of adverse effects of these drugs emerged and he and colleagues tried to re-assess the underlying reports on which the effectiveness of oseltamivir and similar drugs was based, Jefferson was stymied. His colleague, Peter Doshi, related the story in BMJ. The journal’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, along with Cochrane director Mike Clarke, wrote in an accompanying editorial:
The review and a linked investigation undertaken jointly by the BMJ and Channel 4 News cast doubt not only on the effectiveness and safety of oseltamivir (Tamiflu) but on the system by which drugs are evaluated, regulated, and promoted.
The take-home message is that while there is evidence that Tamiflu can be effective in treating flu, the evidence is shakier than it seems, and troubling reports point to potentially serious adverse effects.
How does a questionable medication get to be the basis (or part of the basis) for public health policy? The answer is that the policy makers and the money makers work hand in hand.
Maryann Napoli at Center for Medical Consumers tried to point out the troubling links between WHO and big pharma last year, and Steven Novella at Science-Based Medicine brought it up around the same time.
But most of the coverage focuses on the involvement of individual scientists and/or physicians who are receiving payments or other forms of remuneration directly from drug companies. It’s not hard to police such straightforward conflicts — and so it was easy for Margaret Chan, WHO Director-General, to say last year that “at no time, not for one second, did commercial interests enter my decision-making.”
Epstein’s great contribution is in showing that obvious conflicts of interest aren’t the main way that for-profit companies influence policy. It’s done through stonewalling, as Jefferson encountered when he tried to examine Roche’s data. It’s done through widely accepted collusions.
For instance, the CDC Foundation — “Helping CDC Do More, Faster” is its motto — is a nonprofit organization, created by the U.S. Congress, whose job is to
connect the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with private-sector organizations and individuals to build public health programs that make our world healthier and safer.
Of course, calling them “private-sector organizations” suggests that these are not-for-profits — and some, like the District of Columbia Department of Health, the Medical College of South Carolina, and UNICEF, really are. But most of the private-sector collaborators who are linked with CDC’s policy makers by the CDC Foundation are big corporations. They include all the giants of Pharma world: Merck, Pfizer, Roche, Sanofi-Pasteur, etc. (They also include some who are just giants: Google, Dell, YUM! Brands, and IBM, to name a few.)
So when CDC’s updated flu response plan now recommends antiviral (i.e., neuraminidase-inhibitor) treatment “as soon as possible,” it’s worth asking whether this is because it has any public health value (answer: no) or just because CDC is cozy with companies that make money when people get sick.
This entry was posted on Friday, April 22nd, 2011 at 8:42 pm and is filed under Disease, epidemics, flu, Outbreaks, public health. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.