Scientists protest appointment of Pfizer boss to health panel

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By Margaret Munro, Canwest News Service – December 7, 2009

Opposition continues to mount against the Harper government's appointment of a top pharmaceutical executive to the council governing Canada's largest health-research agency.

More than 3,700 people, including several prominent ethicists and researchers, have signed a petition 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.

One of the most vocal critics is Steven Lewis, a Saskatchewan health researcher and former member of the council, which has a $1-billion-a-year budget and funds the work of thousands of researchers across Canada.

Lewis noted in an essay to be published Tuesday 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," he wrote. "Expensive junkets for docs-for-hire to shill for their products to their peers; the purchase of previously distinguished academics to affix their names to ghostwritten papers; 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; etc. ad infinitum."

Lewis said 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, Lewis said. "Most recently (Pfizer paid) a whopping $2.3 billion for fraudulently marketing Bextra, a painkiller withdrawn from the market in 2005, and three other drugs."

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

As a member of the governing council, Lewis said Prigent will have access to information that his competitors do not and "he can exert a steering effect where they cannot."

Health Minister Leona Aglukkaq said last week she sees no conflict of interest in appointing Prigent to the council, and is not reconsidering the decision.

Supporters of Prigent's appointment, which was made on the recommendation of CIHR president Dr. Alain Beaudet, said he will bring a private-sector voice to the council and help ensure wise spending.

But Lewis, whose essay is published by Longwoods Publishing, a Toronto-based group specializing in health issues, argued there are "innumerable alternatives to get commercialization advice — all of them cleaner and more transparent."

The CIHR governing council consists mainly of scientists, medical practitioners and health administrators drawn from Canadian universities.

Beaudet told the House of Commons health committee last week that Prigent is "a superb addition" to the council and was appointed "because of his vast knowledge, his unique experience and his keen understanding of the Canadian and international health-research landscape."

Bioethicist Jocelyn Downie, Canada research chair in health law and policy at Dalhousie University in Halifax, shares Lewis's concerns and is among the 3,700 signatories of the petition calling for the withdrawal of the appointment. She wonders whether Prigent is in a conflict of interest between serving shareholders of Pfizer and the public interest as a member of CIHR's governing council.

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Original article on Canada.com website