WHO’s call for clinical trial transparency a wakeup call for investors

The lesson from WHO’s statement on clinical trials is how to build partnerships with community and not-for-profit organisations to enable active engagement on a broad range of issues.

The World Health Organisation this week issued a public statement calling for the disclosure of results from clinical trials for medical products, whatever the result.

The WHO’s statement has arisen out of growing concerns that pharmaceutical companies are systematically withholding reporting of clinical trials where the results may not be favourable to drugs that are being tested.

In their statement the WHO quote a study that analysed reporting from large clinical trials registered on ClinicalTrials.gov and completed by 2009, 23% which had no results reported.

There has been a great deal of focus on the actions of Roche with respect to its Tamiflu drug which the Australian and UK Government stockpiled as a precautionary measure in the event of an outbreak of a global flu virus. According to Ben Goldacre, author of Bad Pharma, Roche withheld vital information on its clinical trials for half a decade. A global not-for-profit organisation of 14,000 academics, Cochrane Collaboration, finally obtained all the information, discovering in the process that Tamiflu has little or no impact on complications of flu infection, such as pneumonia.

There are big dollars at stake.

The UK government spent £0.5bn stockpiling tamiflu and since 2002, the Australian government has spent $380 million. This is taxpayer funds that could have gone elsewhere.

For investors there are broader concerns around the way large corporations are influencing government regulations by funding of academics.

In the last couple of months an investigation has revealed the extent of funding from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Nestlé and others to academics that sat on the UK’s Scientific Advisory Committee on Nutrition (SACN) and the Medical Research Council (MRC).

Beyond academic funding, there is also a concern at the extent of lobbying of particular industries including telecommunications, food, banking and pharmaceuticals.

As the fiscal position of governments in developed countries around the world deteriorates (as the retirement of baby boomers places strain on public health and pensions systems) it will be increasingly tempting for universities and other bodies to rely on corporate funding. The problem with this is that it will inevitably result in questions of conflict of interest that will undermine public confidence in research.

For investors who are seeking to grapple with the challenges around fossil fuels, the deteriorating community confidence in the corporate sector is an issue that is being put in the “let’s look at that later” pile.

For investors, the heart of the matter is whether it is possible to become active on a broad range of issues simultaneously. Whilst climate change is the issue of the century, other issues should also be addressed. Investors have for instance been caught flat footed when it comes to the debate around corporate taxation.

It is a lot easier for investors to become engaged around complex issues than it ever was before. Groups such as the Centre for Accountability in Science, All Trials and the Cochrane Collaboration are natural partners for responsible investors.

Investors should accept that they can’t do it all. The era of corporate accountability requires investors to develop new approaches to building partnerships.


Campaign for clinical trials to be released:

Roche’s Tamiflu saga

World Health Organisation’s statement on clinical trials:

Bad Pharma by Ben Goldacre

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