12 Nov Flu: Media Reporting and Competing Interests
MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for your study?
Dr. Mandeville: The UK spent nearly one billion pounds on pharmaceutical drugs during the swine flu pandemic, including vaccine and antiviral drugs. After the swine flu pandemic, it was revealed that some scientists on the World Health Organization’s advisory committee had links with the pharmaceutical industry. Scientists often provide commentary for journalists on emerging health risks and we set out to see whether scientists commentating on swine flu were also more likely to have links to pharmaceutical companies. We analysed UK newspaper coverage of the swine flu pandemic between April and July 2009. This was the period in which the UK government was making decisions on how best to respond to the emerging pandemic, including providing the public with vaccine and antiviral drugs. We looked for how often scientists were quoted in articles on the pandemic from a wide range of newspapers. We then examined these comments in more detail to see if scientists made an assessment of the risk to the public from swine flu, and compared these against assessments made by official agencies like the Department of Health. We also judged whether the scientists promoted or rejected the use of vaccines or antiviral drugs. For each scientist, we then looked for links with the pharmaceutical industry – or what we formally call competing interests – from a variety of sources, including scientific papers and the internet.
MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings of the study?
Dr. Mandeville: One in two scientists commentating on the use of antiviral drugs or vaccine had competing interests. Scientists promoting the use of antiviral drugs were eight times more likely to have a competing interest than those not commenting on their use. We also found that scientists with competing interests were six times more likely than those without any competing interests to predict a higher risk to the public from the pandemic compared to the assessments made by official agencies. Our results suggest that media commentary by scientists may provide an alternative route for the pharmaceutical industry to promote its products as talking up the risk from swine flu, combined with advocacy for drugs to counter this risk, may lead to increased demand for these products. Our study was small, however, and should be seen an initial study that needs to be repeated in order to confirm these findings.
MedicalResearch.com: Were any of the findings unexpected?
Dr. Mandeville: We didn’t expect scientists to be so frequently quoted – they were the second most quoted source after Ministers of Health. This shows that scientists are seen as an independent voice and are often sought out to provide commentary on emerging health risks. Undisclosed links to the pharmaceutical industry could risk losing this public confidence in scientific advice.
MedicalResearch.com: What should clinicians and patients take away from your report?
Dr. Mandeville: Clinicians should think about declaring any competing interests when they give media interviews. This is the normal procedure for scientific studies, so that other scientists can judge the study results in light of potential influencing factors, for example the clinician’s sources of funding. Of course, having links to pharmaceutical companies does not necessarily mean that a scientist is influenced by them, and top scientists will often be asked to both work with drugs companies and provide media commentary. However, we believe that the general public should also be able to read comments from scientists in the knowledge of potential influences from the pharmaceutical industry.
Patients should take away from our study that media stories about new drugs or diseases may be influenced by the pharmaceutical industry. Support for a new drug by a scientist may not be completely unbiased, and it’s best to check with your own doctor as to whether it’s really the right drug for your condition.
MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this study?
Dr. Mandeville: We would recommend that this type of analysis is repeated for other health topics that attract a lot of media attention and in which the pharmaceutical industry has a strong interest, such as cancer or dementia.
Competing interests: I declare that I have no competing interests.