NIH Director Zerhouni Says Conflict-of-Interest Rules Must Balance Agency Needs
NIH must balance the need to maintain public confidence with the need to recruit top researchers in the implementation of new conflict-of-interest rules, agency Director Elias Zerhouni said on Tuesday at a Kaiser Family Foundation forum in Washington, D.C., CQ HealthBeat reports (CQ HealthBeat, 6/14).
Under the interim rules, announced by Zerhouni in February, NIH employees could not enter outside consulting agreements with pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, health insurers and health care providers. The rules also would mandate that about 6,000 top NIH employees could not hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, and current stockholders in the group would have to sell their shares.
Moves by two researchers to delay acceptance of or depart from positions at NIH because of concerns over the rules prompted Zerhouni in April to consider revisions. According to Zerhouni, the provision that would require NIH employees to sell stock could limit the ability of the agency to recruit and retain researchers (California Healthline, 5/20). NIH delayed implementation of the rules until October.
At the forum, Zerhouni said that NIH employees should not promote or endorse prescription drugs or provide advice on medications without disclosure of potential conflicts of interest. However, he said that NIH should allow agreements between agency employees and private entities that provide "public value," such as the development of new medications.
Zerhouni added that, although NIH officials might revise the rules, public confidence remains the top priority of the agency. He said, "I'd rather take the tough road ... and find a balance (with recruiting needs) at the end," adding, "I have no doubt in my mind that at the end of the day, the advice that NIH gives has to be completely unimpeachable, completely untainted."
In addition, Zerhouni encouraged more community participation in clinical trials and clarified comments that he made in April on the Bush administration's policy on federal funding for embryonic stem cell research (CQ HealthBeat, 6/14).