Guest Post: More Transparency Is Needed to Fight Grand Corruption in the Pharmaceutical Sector

Today’s guest post is from Till Bruckner, the founder of TranspariMED:

In the pharmaceutical sector, public agencies are routinely handing over billions in public money to private companies for products whose value they cannot accurately assess, because the vendors control the flow of information generated by clinical trials. (Even the purchasing price is often kept secret, but that is another story.) If we observed this sort of opacity in the public procurement sector, it would immediately raise red flags. If public contractors were taking billions from governments in exchange for products of dubious quality that the governments cannot assess, the anticorruption community would be–rightly–up in arms. But for the pharmaceutical industry, this is business as usual.

Consider, as one particularly egregious example, what can only be described as an $18 billion heist of public money by a pharma company. In 2006, governments around the world began stockpiling Tamiflu, an anti-retroviral drug, due to fears that outbreaks of bird flu (and later swine flu) could turn into a lethal global pandemic. The evidence available at the time suggested that the drug was safe and effective at reducing the symptoms of influenza. In total, 96 counties accumulated enough Tamiflu to treat 350 million people. Then, in 2009, a doctor noticed that the results of eight clinical trials of Tamiflu were missing from the public record. (Worldwide, around half of all clinical trials have never reported their results.) After a struggle lasting four years, independent scientists finally got the company to turn over the relevant data from these trials—and concluded that the drug did little, if anything, to help patients.

This example is especially egregious, but it is not otherwise exceptional. Amazingly, comprehensive information on the safety and effectiveness of drugs is not only inaccessible to independent scientists, but also to government agencies. When a drug company applies for a marketing license, it has to submit detailed documentation from every relevant trial to regulatory agencies such as the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Regulators review these submissions, called Clinical Study Reports (CSRs) – and then promptly lock them away in their confidential archives. This is especially frustrating for scientists working for health technology agencies, who are tasked with assessing the cost-effectiveness of different drugs but are often unable to access CSRs. To date, only the European Medicines Agency systematically releases (some) CSRs.

Politicians have tried to bring transparency into the sector, but the laws they pass often remain unenforced. In the United States, the 2007 FDA Amendment Act made it compulsory for companies and universities to publish the summary results of some clinical trials on public registries. (Summary results are a kind of “executive summary” of a clinical trial; they are far shorter and less detailed than CSRs, but still better than nothing). In 2015, an investigation by STAT News found that pharmaceutical companies routinely violated the law. The law stipulates a fine of up to $10,000 for every day a result is overdue. In theory, Big Pharma has already racked up over $25 billion in fines. In practice, the FDA has yet to collect a single cent. In the European Union, a similar regulation exists, but there too it remains unenforced by national agencies. In Britain, a 2013 parliamentary inquiry called for greater transparency, but its recommendations were largely ignored.

Last December, a coalition of four health integrity organisations issuing a wake-up call for governments to finally get serious about clinical trial transparency. Transparency International Pharmaceuticals & Healthcare (PHP), TranspariMED, Cochrane, and the Collaboration for Research Integrity and Transparency (CRIT) released a study that documents in detail how opacity in the sector harms patients, prevents public health agencies from making informed decisions, wastes public health funds, slows down medical progress, and exposes shareholders to substantial risks. The study also shows that clinical trials can be made significantly more transparent without introducing new legislation. Public research funders could demand that grantees report the results of publicly funded trials. Regulators could make continued market access conditional on companies agreeing to make CSRs publicly available. And in many cases, simply enforcing the rules already on the book could make a huge difference – and the costs of enforcement could easily be covered by imposing fines for noncompliance.

The medical research community has long called for greater transparency in medical research. The AllTrials campaign, which calls for all clinical trials to be registered and fully reported, has attracted the support of over 700 groups, including the American Medical Association and dozens of patient groups, and TranspariMED is currently building a broader coalition to push for greater transparency in the sector. It’s high time for the wider anticorruption community to join the fray.

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