Reporters Need to Avoid Experts with Vaccine Industry Funding; Here's Why, and Here's Help

12 Sep 2016

Not long ago, I wrote about how we should try hard to avoid real or perceived financial conflicts of interest where vaccinations concerned. Many vaccines are too important to public health to have financial conflicts of interest leading to patient and caregiver skepticism—and even cynicism—of the type that is not that unreasonable where some drugs are concerned. (And let’s face it; many vaccines are made by pharmaceutical companies that have not had the most stellar ethics records.)

The science side of the vaccine debates has to keep super duper clean. There’s too much at stake for us to pretend money from industry doesn’t impact how people think and behave around everything, including vaccines, and we are kidding ourselves if we think that patients and caregivers don’t think about this as they are encouraged to vaccinate.

This was brought home to me today reading about a new historical study out of UCSF providing evidence that the sugar industry bought itself experts at Harvard Medical School by funding sugar-friendly targeted research. The experts proceeded to make fat instead of sugar the enemy in heart disease nationwide—and ultimately worldwide. Another history of industry funding of health research being not so much about good science as big profit.

In today’s New York Times report on the study, one of the authors concluded, “They [the industry-funded researchers at Harvard] were able to derail the discussion about sugar for decades.” One of those scientists even “went on to become the head of nutrition at the United States Department of Agriculture, where in 1977 he helped draft the forerunner to the federal government’s dietary guidelines.”

This is exactly the kind of history that I am talking about when I write, as I did for New Statesman magazine, about how not all parents who question some vaccines are “anti-vax.” Some are well read; they know about the bad behaviors and troubling power of the pharmaceutical industry, and they know the same industry produces many of our vaccines.

This is why editors should refuse to accept pro-vaccine articles from individuals who have been funded by the vaccine industry without full disclosure of that funding history; better yet, don’t allow them. Get someone who hasn’t been paid by the industry. It is also extremely important that reporters working on stories about vaccines consult physicians, epidemiologists, and ethicists who do not have histories of being funded by the vaccine industry.

Good news! As it turns out, there are lots of the such people. Yesterday on Twitter, I put out a call, and the following individuals were quickly identified as having had no history of vaccine-industry funding and being generally pro-vaccination. (Why do I say “generally”? Anyone who looks at vaccines scientifically knows they are not all the same, so it’s important to specify which ones we’re talking about when we talk about the evidence for one or another for a particular person.)

These folks are listed alphabetically in general area groupings by their last names. Reporters should note their specialities and choose accordingly, depending on the story being reported. I’m not recommending these people per se; I’m saying that they seem to be the kind of people reporters should consult, rather than people with histories of vaccine industry funding.



Scholars in medical ethics and health policy law:


Reporters should always be careful, when reporting on vaccines, to specifically find out whether a source has vaccine industry funding in their history. Avoid people like Arthur Caplan who has said that he doesn’t get vaccine industry funding because “the checks aren’t written to me”; in fact, his Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy specifically seeks and takes vaccine industry funding. He even offers “development of articles for peer-reviewed journals positioning the underlying issues involved to contribute to the field overall,” but don’t expect Caplan to disclose that when he publishes; he doesn’t. (It’s kind of hilarious the folks at Caplan's center call themselves “an independent voice” on vaccine policy while offering to do political consulting for the vaccine industry. For more on Caplan's troubling history, see the last chapter of Carl Elliott's excellent White Coat, Black Hat.)

The issue of avoiding vaccine commentators with CoI's arose for me anew yesterday after reading Tara Haelle’s astonishing and important account of why the famous Dr. Bob Sears may lose his medical license. (It’s not just that he’s irresponsible around vaccines.)

In that article, Haelle quoted Dr. Paul Offit as an expert—which he most certainly is—but did not mention his history of industry funding. Note: I incorrectly tweeted yesterday that Offit’s center takes industry funding; his current center at Penn, which replaces the one Caplan took with him to NYU, does not. I apologize for that mistake but note that my point about his history stands: for years, Offit helped co-lead Caplan’s Center for Vaccine Ethics and Policy and there’s no question Offit has a long history of industry funding of the sort that leads to skepticism. (Just this morning I had someone on Twitter tell me the HPV vaccine is just a money-making scam. Ugh.)

We on the science side, which Haelle definitely is, should disclose histories of sources’ pharmaceutical (or other) industry funding, to be transparent. Better yet, reporters can call and quote physicians, epidemiologists, and ethicists who have no history of industry funding when they write about vaccines. There are plenty, and that’s because the science in favor of many vaccines’ necessity, safety, and efficacy is very, very strong.