Investigation into corporate influence on scientific research
Credible evidence suggests that veterinary organophosphates may have played a crucial part in the outbreak of BSE? If the allegations are true, pharmaceutical companies will be forced to pay out millions in compensation. Si Mitchell investigates the network of vested interests preventing vital research and asks whether the impartiality of public science has been entirely lost to corporations.
When Thatcher whipped the 'quango' out of her Ferragamo handbag back in 1985, the nation openly mocked the dubiousness of giving cabals of unelected cronies such huge powers. Fifteen years on, quango reports are now cited as fact in public debates, and their members called on by the media as expert, impartial commentators. In a society where it's 'okay' for everyone to have their price, no bones are made of the corporate consultancies, shareholdings, research grants and fees which quango members collect like nose hairs.
This corporate inroad into public decision-making is no more insidiously rife than within science, and no more rife within science than in the big-money production of medicines.
"The Thatcher government withdrew state funding for research into medicines that were nearing a marketable state," says Richard Young of the Soil Association. "That only left industry-funded research, or no research at all. There are very few academics who aren't in some way beholden to industry." Since 1982 UK farmers have been required by law to treat their cattle for warble fly with a pour-on organophosphate called Phosmet Organophosphates were originally developed by Nazi chemists during World War Two as a chemical weapon nerve agent. Post War money men were quick to realise organophosphate's profit potential and Phosmet was marketed both by ICI and later by its renamed subdivsion Zeneca.
"THESE BODIES ARE NOT INDEPENDENT AT ALL. FROM THE UNIVERSITIES, TO THE FOOD PRODUCERS, TO THE PRODUCT REGULATORS, THE PHARMACEUTICAL COMPANIES HAVE THEIR FINGERS IN EVERY PIE."
In 1982 a Somerset organic dairy farmer, Mark Purdey began noticing the prevalence of BSE in Phosmet-treated cattle brought into his herd, but its absence in untreated cows. He embarked on a study of the epidemiology of BSE and similar human and animal brain diseases and discovered a link between the disease and the uptake of manganese, something he believed was being caused by the Phosmet. He even managed to alleviate symptoms in a BSE infected cow with an antidote to pesticide poisoning (the cure was never completed as MAFF came and destroyed the cow). Two chemists from Cambridge University and the Institute of Psychiatry began tests which backed up Purdey's theory. Both had their funding stopped.
Agitated by Purdey's discovery, the pesticide industry hit back. The comically named National Office of Animal Health (NOAH), a lobby group representing the UK animal medicine industry (whose membership reads like a Number 10 dinner-party invite list and includes Bayer, Monsanto, Novartis, Pfizer, Roche and Schering-Plough) produced a briefing paper for Lord Philips' BSE inquiry claiming: "Many independent experts [have said] a relationship between organophosphates (OPs) and BSE does not exist."
The "many independent experts" turned out to be Dr David Ray, a toxicologist from the Medical Research Council. However NOAH never explained that Ray's Toxicology unit was at the time, and still is, receiving funding from Phosmet's makers Zeneca.
In December last year, Ray was appointed to the Veterinary Products Committee (VPC), a quango set up under the 1968 Medicines Act, populated by academics and farmers, whose job is to scrutinise the safety of animal medicines before licences are issued, and to advise ministers accordingly. Licences for chemicals like Phosmet.
"It's the incestuousness of our expertise," Purdey told Red Pepper. "These bodies are not independent at all. From the colleges/universities, to the food producers, to the product regulators and healthcare bodies that cover up the disorders created by these chemicals, the pharmaceutical companies have their fingers in every pie."
Paul Tyler, Lib Dem MP for Cornwall North, chair of the All Party Organophosphate Parliamentary Group, thinks the situation is insiduous. "[Medicines Act Advisory Body members] have the mindset of the commercial sector," he says. "They've worked their lives in roles that are sympathetic with the chemical companies, rather than the people they ought to be protecting."
When appointed, Ray said that his links to industry will not affect his judgement on the VPC. He justifies Zeneca and Bayer's funding of research posts in his unit by saying: "There are two ways to get bad pesticides off the market, ban them, or get the companies to develop better pesticides." "At the time I didn't realise Astra and Zeneca were the same company," says Ray. A misconception rectified, no-doubt, since the company gave him a consultancy post. Ray claims he is interested in identifying organophosphate toxicity and all theories should be tested... but not Purdey's: it's too "implausible". A sentiment shared by NOAH, Zeneca and MAFF.
CATHOLIC-STYLE CONFESSIONALS IN THE FORM OF 'DECLARATIONS OF INTEREST' HAVE BECOME THE ULTIMATE GET-OUT CLAUSE.
When Ray testified to the BSE Inquiry he was a member of the Appraisal Panel for Human Suspected Adverse Reactions (another Medicines Act quango). When SQUALL asked him to list his connections to the pharmaceutical industry, Ray told us they could all be found in the 1998 Medicines Act Advisory Body's Annual Report. However, when we secured a copy of the report, the industry connections under his name were listed as "none".
If the 1999 version is to be believed, 34 members across the committees are in receipt of fees, consultancies, grants or shares from Astra/Zeneca. Six of those are on the Medicines Commission, who appoint committee members and review their decisions, including Dr Richard Auty who was Zeneca's Research and Development director until June last year and still draws a pension from the company. Having said this, Glaxo Wellcome, SmithKline Beecham, Rhone Poulenc, and the other big hitters in pharmaceuticals are all similarly represented in members' interests.
The Veterinary Products Committee also monitor suspected adverse reactions to the chemicals which they have approved.
"They're hardly likely to condemn as dangerous a product they themselves declared safe," says farmer Johanna Wheatley, who campaigns against 'intellectual corruption' in the licensing of agricultural pesticides. The VPC's code of conduct says "an understanding" and "practical experience" of the pharmaceutical industry is desirable in members. Food Safety Minister Baroness Hayman is reported to have told the committee that she recognised the need for 'experts' with links to industry. Less than a quarter of VPC members have no declared financial interest to the pharmaceutical industry. Professor Karl Linklater who chairs the VPC working group on BST (a manufactured milk-enhancing hormone for cattle) holds, or has held, 17 commercial consultancies with pharmaceutical producers.
Committee members nominate themselves (Ray told SQUALL that applying for the post "was suggested" to him) and the relationships between them seem cozy. Eight of the VPC's 22 members are based within a forty mile area in the Scottish lowlands. Linklater, principal and chief executive of the Scottish Agricultural College (who refused to co-operate with this article citing 'commercial confidentiality') has a consultancy with Grampian Pharmaceuticals, formerly known as Youngs Pharmaceuticals (name changing is big in this business). Three other VPC members are in receipt of research grants from Grampian. Grampian/Youngs are the UK distributors of Phosmet.
"MANUFACTURERS HAVE QUIETLY FAILED TO REQUEST REAUTHORISATION. IT'S A DEVIOUS WAY FOR THOSE RESPONSIBLE TO SLIP OUT OF THE FRAME WITHOUT ADMITTING LIABILITY."
Five VPC members are personal shareholders in Zeneca, one of whom, the toxicologist Professor Tony Dayan, is chairman of the committee's sub-group on hormonal growth promoters. The chairman of the VPC's Medical and Scientific Panel, Dr Nick Bateman is an Astra-Zeneca consultant and the committee's GP veterinarian, treats Zeneca's dairy herd.
During the 1980's, when the academic/industry grip was weaker, a VPC sub-committee (JCAMS) attempted to scrutinise the merit of antibiotic livestock feed additives. When the sub-committee wrote to the then MAFF minister, Peter Walker, complaining that their work was being undermined by a lack of resources, the sub-committee was immediately disbanded.
"Members of the Medicines Advisory Committees are professionals of the highest standing," say the Medicines Control Agency (MCA - who are responsible for these bodies). The MCA code of practice, they claim, will "avoid any public concern that commercial interests might affect [member's] advice". Under the code "members may be asked to leave the room until a discussion has been concluded about the company they have an interest in".
Though committee members are deemed 'too professional' to let the prospect of massive returns on their shareholdings affect their judgement, chairmen are required not to have industry links, and the MCA go out of their way to point out that their own board members "hold no shares in pharmaceutical companies". Catholic-style confessionals in the form of 'declarations of interest' have become the ultimate get-out clause.
Last year, research from the Institute of Occupational Medicine and the Committee on Toxicity in Food exposed possible ill-health effects from prolonged or repeated low level exposure to OPs used for dipping sheep - the VPC advised that the OPs should not be banned, but repackaged so as to not splash farm workers.
Despite the wealth of knowledge to the contrary, MAFF's head is deep in the sand. "There is no conclusive scientific evidence that OPs are damaging to human health," said a spokeswoman, who confirmed that a "new tap" has now been found for OP containers, sheep dip organophosphates are about to make a come back.
In practice organophosphate use is declining. Phosmet enforcement only happens when a warble fly outbreak occurs and, according to the NFU, farmers are using alternatives where possible and concentration levels of OPs are falling. "They're not getting banned," says Paul Tyler. "But manufacturers have quietly failed to request reauthorisation. It's a devious way for those responsible [for the ill-health/deaths caused by pesticides] to slip out of the frame without admitting liability."
In March 1996, in the same month as the UK government admitted a link between BSE and nvCJD, the Phosmet patent passed from Zeneca to a previously unheard of PO Box company in Arizona called Gowan. Purdey believes a proven link between Phosmet and BSE would cost the Pharmaceutical industry billions. His MP, former Tory defence Secretary Tom King reckons: "If the government are found liable for BSE - by enforcing organophosphate treatment - the payout could break the economy."
Tyler thinks the government have already accepted the danger of OPs. "They've been ratcheting up precautions and advice on protection for a decade, but they are more scared of being sued by the pharmaceutical manufacturers, than facing liability suits from sick or dying people." But there's little chance of that, after all, the experts say it's safe. And their integrity is, of course, impeccable.