In this new article series, we look at the "Ghost in the Machine" –– the murderous forces in our health care system that harm patients instead of help them. This series will expose the deceptions that occur in almost all facets of health care today for no reason other than money. It will also expose the identities of the ghost's "puppet masters" who perpetrate health misinformation and unethical drug marketing for profit, whether it’s Big Pharma or its helpers in academia, government and non-government agencies.
It should surprise no one that, in most cases, promotion of dangerous drugs and misleading health information is a direct result of conflicts of interest. For example, with the exception of CBS, every major U.S. media outlet keeps at least one person from the drug industry on its board, which clearly explains the dearth of reporting on Pharma dangers and corruption.1
The drug industry also spends billions a year on TV ads — revenue from just nine prescription drugs was worth $100 million in one year — which also stifles negative news stories about Pharma.2
Even so-called “public” media like PBS and NPR have accepted money from GlaxoSmithKline (GSK) and UnitedHealthcare.3 Similar conflicts of interest exist at medical journals, universities, medical associations, advocacy groups and government agencies, including those that are supposed to regulate the drug industry. The result is the Ghost in the Machine that we live with today — deceived patients taking expensive, often dangerous drugs and soaring health costs.
Revolving Doors Between Pharma and Government
One of the most damaging conflicts of interest is the revolving door between industry and government. It allows the worst forms of cronyism, quid pro quo arrangements and approval of dangerous drugs. Both Robert Califf, former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Commissioner, and Scott Gottlieb, the current FDA Commissioner, are shining examples of conflicts of interest.
Before his appointment by President Obama in 2015, Califf received money from 23 drug companies including giants like Johnson & Johnson, Lilly, Merck, Schering Plough and GSK, according to a disclosure statement on the website of Duke Clinical Research Institute.4 He even praised the involvement of Pharma in government affairs.
Gottlieb was named FDA commissioner this year by President Trump, despite his high-profile work as a Pharma consultant and stock trader. While serving as FDA deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs before becoming commissioner, Gottlieb had to recuse himself from work related to nine drug companies, including Roche, Sanofi-Aventis, Eli Lilly and Proctor & Gamble, because of his financial links.5,6
Another example of the "revolving door" between government and industry is former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Julie Gerberding, who left the agency in 2009 where she had overseen vaccine decisions to head Merck’s vaccines division.7,8 In 2015, she sold 38,368 shares of her Merck stock valued at $2 million.9,10 Thomas Insel, former director of the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) also used the revolving door, leaving government for industry in 2015.11
And who can forget former Texas governor Rick Perry, who mandated that all girls in Texas be vaccinated with Gardasil, an HPV vaccine made by Merck, after his former chief of staff became a Merck lobbyist?12 Stipends from industry to government also skew drug messages. Gilead Sciences, an aggressive marketer of hepatitis C drugs, likely earned the right to add the CDC's name to its ads because of its gifts to the CDC Foundation.13
Pharma/Academia Partnerships Are Lucrative Thanks to Taxpayers
Academia was once a source of unbiased drug and health information, untainted by Big Pharma and Big Pharma's money. Not anymore. Universities now have a "renewed interest in partnering with pharmaceutical companies and are investing resources to ensure successful collaborations," writes Pharma Voice.14 This is how Dr. Terrence Norchi, president and CEO of Arch Therapeutics, explains the profitable new partnerships.15
“For the past 15 years, the pipelines of the big [drug] companies have been drying up ... At the same time, there is a tremendous amount of pressure on academic institutions in this country and abroad. To survive, many universities will have to find creative ways to make themselves more relevant. There are opportunities to mutually solve these challenges between academia and industry.”
Such Pharma/academia partnerships date back to the Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, which allowed universities to "patent discoveries that stem from government-funded research and then license them exclusively to companies in return for royalties," wrote Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and Harvard lecturer, in the Boston Review.16,17
Similar laws also allow industry to co-opt and profit from NIH-funded research, which is also taxpayer supported, says Angell. Before the Bayh-Dole Act, government-funded discoveries were in the public domain — as they should be. Between 2000 and 2011 more than half of all new drugs approved in the United States were developed by collaborations with other entities such as universities.18
Increasingly, academia does not even attempt to hide its dual allegiances. Susan Desmond-Hellmann was invited to apply to be Chancellor of the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF), which includes a medical school, while serving as president of product development at Genentech.19 She remained at UCSF until 2014 after which she joined the Gates Foundation, which has its own serious conflicts of interest that you will read about in the Ghost in the Machine series.