Should Pfizer VP Sit on CIHR’s Governing Council?

Controversy has arisen over the appointment of one of Pfizer’s VPs to the governing council of the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR). (For those who don’t know, CIHR is the Canadian government’s main agency for funding research in the area of health.)

Here’s the story, as reported by the CBC: Appointment of Pfizer exec to health funding body criticized

Prominent bioethicists have expressed alarm at the recent appointment of a senior pharmaceutical executive to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), the government’s funding arm for medical research.

They hope to have their concerns about the three-year appointment of Dr. Bernard Prigent, vice-president and medical director of Pfizer Canada, to the governing council of the CIHR addressed at a parliamentary meeting Monday….

The CBC story also refers to a petition recently begun, in opposition to Prigent’s appointment. Here it is: Petition Against the Appointment of the VP of Pfizer Canada to CIHR Governing Council.

The main worry here is conflict of interest. Perception plays a big role in conflict of interest. In this regard, both the government and their critics are wrong. It’s not a matter of whether Prigent will be able to avoid letting his obligations to his shareholders affect his obligations as a member of the Council. The problem is whether his job at Pfizer will jeopardize the reputation of CIHR (and more particularly its governing council) by rendering its judgment suspect. I don’t know anything about Dr. Prigent & he may well be an individual of outstanding integrity. The point is, that doesn’t matter. Even if he does exercise his best, publicly-minded judgment on behalf of CIHR, his presence could still render the governing council’s judgment suspect.

It’s also worth noting that opposition to this appointment involves 2 separable issues. One is the appointment of someone from the pharmaceutical industry to CIHR’s governing council. The other is the appointment of someone from Pfizer, in particular.

So one issue is Pfizer’s less-than-stellar reputation. As the CBC story notes, Pfizer recently paid a record-breaking $2.3 billion fraud settlement. And I’ve also blogged about just a handful of the many cases of wrongdoing at Pfizer, including here and here and here. And because of Pfizer’s poor reputation, I think the petition-writers are right that Prigent is a bad choice to be on CIHR’s governing council. Pfizer’s reputation is not good, and so many people will justifiably be suspicious of the intentions and judgment of its senior executives. That’s crucial to the worry about conflict of interest.

The other issue is whether anyone from the pharmaceutical industry could ever be on CIHR’s governing council, and that I think is a harder issue, one on which the writers of the petition have overreached. I for one would need to know much more about the governing council, its mandate, and its operations, to know whether an executive from a small or mid-sized pharmaceutical company with a good reputation could be valuable in that role. “Divergence of interests” between a company’s shareholders and the public isn’t sufficient reason to exclude executives from that company. Nobody’s interests are perfectly aligned with the public’s. What matters is whether the divergence is sufficient to render an individual’s advice suspect in a way that cannot be remedied through standard mechanisms used to mitigate the effects of conflict of interest (mechanisms such as disclosure and recusal). So simply working for industry doesn’t strike me as an insurmountable flaw, particularly if (if!) the governing council’s role makes an intimate understanding of the drug industry useful.

But the main point remains: it’s very hard to support the inclusion of an executive from this pharmaceutical company on the governing council of Canada’s most important health-research-funding organization.

~ by Nancy Walton on November 29, 2009.

One Response to “Should Pfizer VP Sit on CIHR’s Governing Council?”

  1. I too am extremely uncomfortable with a Pfizer VP on CIHR’s council. I do not think any drug company rep should be allowed to sit on that council. And I think it is ludicrous to suggest that Pfizer is offering up an active VP to get involved with the council, for benevolent reasons.
    Same goes for the fact that Pfizer is teaming up with the CMA to provide continuing medical education to CMA physicians. The idea that there is no possible conflict of interest is ludicrous: if there wasn’t, and if there was no possibility of further profits for Pfizer, one can be guaranteed that Pfizer would not be doing this in the first place. Both the federal government or the CMA seem to have developed willful blindness when it comes to Pfizer. Pfizer’s primary responsibility, legally, is to its shareholders, not to the public at large.
    I should add that while I do not trust any drug company, I have even less respect for Pfizer and its former collaborator, Boehringer Ingelheim. I managed to scrape through medical school while on Mirapex, a drug marketed by both companies. This drug caused me severe daytime somnolence so that I couldn’t stay awake in class, or when scrubbed in in operating rooms; I impulsively bought a 2nd house and tried to buy a 3rd (twice). I went $160 K into debt. I would have extremely strong suicide ideation. And I became very emotionally labile. All this went away within a week after I discontinued the Mirapex, and I was just left with a second house that I didn’t need, huge debt, and with a reputation that had been harmed by my conduct on this drug. In my mind, Pfizer may do some good, but there is good reason why it received a fine for _criminal_ activity. The CMA and the government of Canada should distance themselves from this company.

    Jennifer Purdy
    Ottawa, ON

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