NIH Director Zerhouni Suggests Conflicts-of-Interest Summit
In an interview discussing new NIH guidelines to curb conflicts of interest, agency Director Elias Zerhouni suggested a summit of academic and government leaders to address the issue, the Los Angeles Times reports (Willman, Los Angeles Times, 2/12). On Feb. 1, Zerhouni announced an overhaul of ethics guidelines that will restrict all 18,000 NIH employees' outside consulting activities for pharmaceutical companies, hospitals, insurers and health providers.
Under the revised guidelines, about 6,000 high-ranking NIH employees will no longer be allowed to hold stock in pharmaceutical or biotechnology companies, and current stockholders in that group must sell all shares. Other NIH employees who do not influence funding decisions will be subject to a $15,000 limit on health-related stock holdings. The guidelines, which will take effect as soon as they are published, also limit awards that scientists may receive to no more than $200, with the exception of the Nobel and Lasker prizes (California Healthline, 2/2).
Zerhouni "stopped short" of saying he would personally organize a summit to scrutinize conflict-of-interest policies at academic institutions and private practices in which research is conducted, but the Times notes that as NIH director, he "is in a strong position to demand change." A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association in 2003 found that about one-fourth of biomedical researchers at universities have financial ties with industry. Moreover, according to the Times, practicing physicians sometimes accept fees from medical companies to enroll patients in studies without disclosing their financial interest to patients.
In discussing the conflict-of-interest reforms -- which he initially resisted -- Zerhouni said, "What changed my mind" was seeing NIH scientists "trading on [their positions] to be speakers for products, or whatever. That's when I said, 'Wait a minute, I'm wrong.'" Zerhouni added, "If you are weighing in on behalf of the public, I want you to be there on behalf of the public. ... Don't tread on your prestige, your position, in a way that pretends to be completely objective."
Asked if academic researchers should enact similar guidelines as NIH, Zerhouni said, "We need to have a summit discussion to say, 'Look, what is the interest of the public?'" (Los Angeles Times, 2/12).