Flu experts with pharma links more likely to promote drugs

Academics connected to the pharmaceutical industry were more likely to promote antiviral drug use against influenza than those without connections, according to research recently published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health.

During the 2009-2010 swine flu pandemic, the U.K. spent an estimated $1.6 billion on pharmaceuticals and the pharmaceutical industry made $7.2 billion to $10.4 billion from H1N1 vaccines alone. Concerns were raised about the connections experts on influential advisory committees had with drug companies.

Researchers with the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine analyzed 425 articles about the H1N1 swine flu pandemic in U.K. newspapers to assess the extent of competing interests among the sources quoted between April 2009 and July 2009.

The researchers found that academics with competing interests were approximately six times as likely to make higher risk assessments than official agencies than academics without any industry links. The academics were also eight times more likely to promote the use of antiviral drugs than experts without ties to the industry.

"Our study provides some evidence that higher risk assessments and the promotion of antiviral drugs were associated with competing interests among public health academics," Kate Mandeville, the lead author of the study, said. "These add to the growing body of literature highlighting the potential influence of the pharmaceutical industry on major policy decisions through avenues such as scientific advisory committees, guidelines, and media commentary.

Only three out of the 425 articles mentioned that the quoted academic had a potential competing interest in the industry.

"Competing interests that aren't disclosed harm the public's perception of the independent voice of public health academics," Mandeville said. "Academics should declare, and journalists ask for and report, competing interests for media interviews."

The researchers acknowledged that the original interviews could have contained more nuanced views than appeared in print. Journalists may have sought out divergent views to increase a story's newsworthiness or to balance a story.