“Where There’s Smoke, There’s Pfizer”: growing protests against appointment of Big Pharma exec to research funding agency

This news could be compared to inviting the fox to be in charge of the henhouse.  Except that it’s more like inviting the fox right into the henhouse to relax, put up his feet, and help himself to a three-year supply of Buffalo wings. That’s why opposition continues to mount this week against the Canadian government’s questionable appointment of a top pharmaceutical executive to the council governing Canada’s largest health research agency. Thousands of people, including several prominent medical ethicists and researchers, have signed a petition this week calling for the withdrawal of the appointment of Dr. Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research, which has a $1-billion annual budget funding the work of thousands of medical researchers across Canada.

The publicly-funded CIHR awards grants to researchers across the country working in health and medicine. Its governing council consists mainly of scientists, medical practitioners and health administrators drawn from Canadian universities.  And now, drawn from Big Pharma too. 

One of the most vocal critics to Prigent’s appointment is health researcher and former CIHR council member Dr. Steven Lewis, who claims that the pharmaceutical industry has engaged in “countless systematic transgressions” against scientific integrity and honest marketing over the last decade:

 “The industry’s greatest innovations have occurred outside the lab:

  • expensive junkets for docs-for-hire to shill drugs to their peers
  • the purchase of previously distinguished academics to affix their names to ghostwritten papers for medical journals
  • the suppression of unfriendly clinical trials and adverse effects data
  • the publication of the same data in different journals to bias systematic reviews and meta-analyses, ad infinitum.”

Dr. Lewis adds that it is “hardly irrelevant that the company to which Dr. Prigent owes his livelihood and his allegiance has owned up to sleaze that stands out even among its shady peers.”

Since 2004, Pfizer, the world’s largest drug company, has paid $2.75 billion in criminal fines and penalties for fraudulent marketing practices, Dr. Lewis said.

He questioned how Prigent would respond if the council were asked to support research showing a Pfizer drug is dangerous or to identify the massive public subsidies that flow to drug companies.

Pfizer Canada has already come under fire recently for giving over $780,000  to the Canadian Medical Association for “medical education”.  Dr. Arnold Relman, professor emeritus at Harvard Medical School and former editor of the New England Journal of Medicine told the Globe and Mail on December 10th:

“My feeling is that the pharmaceutical industry has no business at all educating doctors. There’s no question that if you’re paying the piper, you influence the tune that the piper is going to play.”

 As a member of the governing council, Dr. Lewis said that Pfizer’s Bernard Prigent will have access to information that his competitors do not and “he can exert a steering effect where they cannot.”

Canadian Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq told CBC news reporters last week that she sees no conflict of interest in appointing Prigent to the council, and is not reconsidering the decision.

“I’m not reconsidering that appointment.  The individual was appointed on the basis of his merit, the experience and expertise that he brings to the panel and every board member that’s appointed to those organizations have to abide by current conflict of interest legislation.”

According to the federal government’s news release announcing Prigent’s appointment:

“Prigent has worked on the clinical development and commercialization of new medicines in a variety of therapeutic areas, including cardiology, respiratory medicine, infectious disease, rheumatology, urology, neurology and oncology.”

The CBC report quotes supporters of Prigent’s appointment:

“He will bring a private sector voice to the council and help ensure wise spending”.

Oh, I’d just bet that he will.

Last week, Prigent’s three-year appointment was criticized by bioethicists such as Dr. Jocelyn Downie, Canada research chair in health law and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax. Dr. Downie questioned Prigent’s conflict of interest between serving shareholders of Pfizer and the public interest as a member of the CIHR’s governing council.

UPDATE:  Prigent’s appointment (and subsequent near-universal condemnation from medical ethicists because Pfizer stands to profit directly from the decisions made at CIHR) resulted in an extraordinary review by the Canadian Parliamentary Standing Committee on Health, but his appointment has not yet been reversed.

See also:

3 thoughts on ““Where There’s Smoke, There’s Pfizer”: growing protests against appointment of Big Pharma exec to research funding agency

  1. Are you KIDDING ME? This is so blatantly inappropriate – I cannot believe your health minister is actually refusing to do something immediately to correct this clear conflict of interest. What kind of mickey mouse country are you running up there?

    What’s next? – why don’t you just appoint the Pfizer guy to replace your spineless Health Minister? it would be so much handier for the drug companies if they were running the show.

  2. Surprise surprise. Is anybody truly shocked that drugmakers have friends in high places that FOR SOME REASON make decisions in their favor? Now in Canada they have a friend in a very high place. Perfect…… Wonder how much this appointment cost the drug industry.

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