By Jessica Dacey
An executive at Swiss group Novartis has been appointed to a World Health Organization body advising on research despite criticism it may lead to a conflict of interest.
Paul Herrling, the Swiss head of corporate research at pharmaceutical concern Novartis, was among 21 people approved this week to join a WHO expert group evaluating funding for projects into neglected tropical diseases – those illnesses affecting the poorest populations.
He is the only expert in the group who is also an executive in the drugs industry.
Concerns were flagged up at the latest World Health Assembly meeting, with member states stressing the need for transparency in the workings of the group and “the need to assure a robust management of all possible conflicts of interest of members of the group”.
In announcing the new membership of the group, the WHO assistant director-general Marie-Paule Kieny said the utmost care would be taken to ensure all possible conflicts of interest were dealt with.
So where does Herrling’s potential conflict of interest lie, beyond being an industry executive?
The Swiss is also the author of a proposal to the same working group for a new funding model that would allocate $10 billion (SFr9.42 billion) in grants to fund research by pharmaceutical firms as well as public research institutes and public private partnerships.
“It is a conflict of interest for Paul Herrling to evaluate his own proposals,” James Love, of the non-profit advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International, told swissinfo.ch.
“It is not a trivial issue, given that the proposals involve billions of dollars in various subsidies to for-profit pharmaceutical companies, and many controversial aspects of the management of the funds.”
Love said the WHO were being “tone deaf” to industry conflicts and pointed out that the choice of Herrling went against WHO’s own conflict of interest guidelines which call for “a good faith effort to find individuals who do not have interests that may give rise to a real or perceived conflict of interest to serve as experts in scientific or technical advisory meetings”.