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The WHO, A Novartis Exec & A Conflict Of Interest

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By Ed Silverman
January 19th, 2011


Late last month, the World Health Organization proposed members for what it calls a consultative expert working group for R&D financing, which would evaluate and recommend funding for partnership projects for such problems as neglected diseases. The protocol involves nominating individuals from different countries and regions in order to create a balance reflecting varying needs and views.

But one suggested member is reportedly generating some controversy - Paul Herrling, who heads the Institutes for Developing World Medical Research at Novartis. Among the 21 people suggested for the working group, he is the only one listed as currently working as an executive for a drugmaker (see the list here). And for that reason, his nomination stirred some opposition over concerns of any potential conflict of interest.

For instance, Herrling is the author of a proposal asking the CEWG for $10 billion in grants to subsidize pharmaceutical industry research into neglected diseases (read here). He is also involved in an effort to create a revised proposal for funding partnership development projects, along with the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. And so his nomination was questioned by representatives from Thailand, which has sparred with several brand-name drugmakers over pricing and compulsory licensing.

Consequently, the nomination has caused a debate and prompted pushback from some European members of the WHO executive board, who are threatening to hold up approving the creation of the working group, according to Knowledge Ecology International, a non-profit advocacy group that focuses on intellectual property issues that affect access to medications (look here).

This is not the first time that the WHO has encountered criticism over a decision to tap execs from drugmakers for advisory groups. Last year, the agency was embroiled over a decision to withhold the names of scientific advisors who participated on its pandemic flu panel. The names were released only after the WHO declared the pandemic had ended (read this).

Herrling, himself, may not be a huge issue, according to KEI's Jamie Love. "Among public health groups, Paul Herrling is one of the highest regarded big pharma executives, and someone that KEI and others respect and enjoy working with. We just do not see how the WHO can have him evaluate his own funding proposals," he writes. "We would have thought the previous controversy over the industry influence on the influenza pandemic expert group would have make the WHO more sensitive to the public's concerns over conflicts of interest. Apparently not."

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