A month or so ago I cited in a post a recent editorial by Drs. Robert Steinbrook and Rita Redberg:
Drs. Steinbrook and Redberg were waxing optimistic about new measures to improve the trustworthiness of the medical research literature. Among the reasons for optimism, they listed: "Finally, as of January 2014, the European Medicines Agency (EMA) will publish clinical trial data for the medications it considers for approval. ... Two companies have recently mounted legal challenges to decisions by the EMA to grant access to documents. But if the agency is able to keep to its timetable and fulfill its promises, a new era of access to clinical trial data will commence."
The Guardian in the UK now reports:
--that the drug industry is not exactly taking this threat of increased transparency in drug research lying down: "The pharmaceutical industry has "mobilised" an army of patient groups to lobby against plans to force companies to publish secret documents on drugs trials....The strategy was drawn up by two large trade groups, the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PhRMA) and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA), and outlined in a memo to senior industry figures this month, according to an email seen by the Guardian."
Appropriate comments on this move are provided by Tim Reed of Health Action International, a group that has been active in exposing financial connections between drug companies and patient organizations:
"It underlines the fact that patient groups who are in the pay of the pharmaceutical industry will go into battle for them. There's a hidden agenda here. The patient groups will say they think it's a great idea to keep clinical trials data secret. Why would they do that? They would do that because they are fronts for the pharmaceutical industry.
"Patient groups get traction because they are assumed to represent the voice of the suffering. But industry uses them to say we're not going to get innovative medicines if the industry is deterred from investing by having to be transparent about their clinical trials..."
When this apparently secret campaign was brought out into the open, the responses of the drug firms and their lobbying organizations was interesting. The drug companies basically either did not reply to the Guardian or else said, "Who, us? We would never do such a thing." The lobbying organizations, PhRMA and EFPIA, brazened it out by insisting that there are serious risks to public and patient health if these trial results are openly available, and so they are just protecting their public health mandate by objecting.
According to The Guardian, the campaign seems to be working so far: "A source in the European parliament, who is close to the negotiations over the clinical trials directive, said he had experienced intense lobbying from patient groups. 'We've witnessed this sort of activity in recent months, and it's a concern if the pharmaceutical industry is behind some of it. They are trying to weaken some of the transparency proposals and that's clear from the amount of lobbying we've had,' he said."
In HOOKED, I explained the origins of the industry-insider term "astroturf" to designate a phony grass roots organization, which appears to be transmitting the real thoughts and ideas of real people, when in fact it is nothing but a PR mouthpiece for the drug industry, bought and paid for. At first I meant by "astroturf" a genuinely phony organization, that actually had no membership and was solely the creation of industry PR firms. This example from Europe suggests that we need to extend the concept and note that even real patient organizations, that actually do represent people suffering from particular diseases, can turn themselves into "astroturf" when they are willing to serve as paid shills in instances like this one.