Doctors and researchers who had something to gain from the swine flu pandemic in 2009 were more likely to overestimate the urgency of the outbreak and to recommend antiviral medications than completely independent researchers, according to a new analysis by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
The study, published Monday in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, suggests that journalists and the researchers themselves should do a better job of divulging conflicts of interests in public health stories. The analysis looked at 425 articles published in the United Kingdom about swine flu between April and July 2009. Academics who had connections to the pharmaceutical industry or had other conflicts of industry were six times more likely than those without conflicts to be quoted making risk assessments that were higher than those made by those official agencies such as the UK Department of Health.
“Those scientists quoted who had connections to the pharmaceutical industry were much more likely to say the outbreak would affect millions of people or something like that,” said Kate Mandeville, lead author of the paper.
The study cites such claims from academics as “the virus [is] likely to be two to three times more deadly than seasonal flu...the pandemic could mean that 25–35 per cent of the population would fall ill within three or four months,” which obviously didn’t come true during the 2009 outbreak. Other articles cited doctors promoting the use of Tamiflu, while yet another said that Tamiflu shouldn’t be used and instead “it would be nice to get as much Relenza [another drug] as we can get our hands on.”
Such claims can contribute to public anxiety about an outbreak, which can in turn affect how government acts, Mandeville said.
“It’s tenuous to say the media coverage directly impacts the government response, because they have their own information,” she added. “But it can increase public demand for drugs and can put pressure on politicians.”
That, in turn, can lead to scenarios where half of all Tamiflu perscriptions get wasted. And although Mandeville and her team only studied the 2009-2010 H1N1 swine flu outbreak, she says it’s likely the trend continues to other, more common diseases—especially ones where pharmaceutical companies make big money—such as cancer, diabetes, and dementia.
In a mass-media environment driven by page views and viral sharing, journalists are often under pressure to find sources willing to discuss a worst-case scenario, and doctors who receive funding from pharmaceutical companies are often willing to give it to them. That’s a problem both media companies and academics need to learn to deal with, Mandeville said. Journalists should do a better job of divulging a researcher’s affiliations and researchers should be more upfront in declaring conflicts of interest, as they often have to do in published journal articles, she said.
“There’s a reason a lot of these scientists are asked to collaborate with pharma and that’s in order to advance the field. They’re good and that’s why they’re most often asked to comment to the media,” she said. “Just because you have those links doesn’t necessarily mean you’re influenced by it, but we need those who do media interviews to declare those so that readers can judge their comments with that in mind.”
For the record, Mandeville says in the paper that she has no competing interests.