On February 4 a meeting was held at the Ministry of Health, dealing with vaccines against the coronavirus. At the meeting, Prof. Galia Rahav, the head of the Infectious Diseases Unit at the Sheba Medical Center, said that unless children are vaccinated too, we cannot vanquish the epidemic, and suggested proposing to Pfizer to conduct an experiment in which it would vaccinate Israeli children.
Her words may sound sensational to anyone who doesn’t understand how medical research works, drew biting criticism from vaccination opponents. Among other things they claimed she had taken money from Pfizer, the vaccine manufacturer. When asked about this, she dismissed the statement with ridicule: “Let them have a look at my paycheck – that’s ridiculous.”
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The “anti-vaxxers” have made any number of ludicrous claims but accusing a senior physician of taking money from Pfizer is not one of them. She has received payments, in exchange for counseling and lectures (not on the coronavirus). This is disclosed at the bottom of articles she publishes in medical journals, which routinely require authors to disclose their funding sources. The problem is that the public which gets her professional recommendations through newspapers and television is not privy to this information. Rahav didn’t feel the need to provide such disclosure, and it seems that her interviewers were unaware of the situation.
Does this mean that Rahav necessarily skews her considerations in favor of the company paying her? Not at all. But the financial links definitely place in her a situation of potential conflict of interest. This should at least be put on the table: but in Israel, financial ties between doctors and drug companies are kept shrouded, and Rahav is not an exception.
Another senior physician who spoke before a Knesset committee, arguing in favor of a vaccine against cervical cancer, did not bother telling lawmakers that he had received funding from two makers of this vaccine, MSD and GSK. When I asked him about this, he gave the following explanation: “I give full disclosure in places where it is customary to do so, such as in lectures I give to physicians. I don’t declare a conflict of interests when I go shopping at a supermarket.” That’s how a senior physician treate the debate on vaccination policies in parliament.
Defensive responses of this ilk are common among doctors. When I asked Rahav about it, she sounded offended. “I spend 20 hours a week as a volunteer at committees and debates on the coronavirus, and you’re talking to me about money?”
One can understand the doctors. When someone engages in saving lives, making do with a government salary and adding pro bono work too, it’s hard for them to bear accusations that they’re in it for the money. But many studies have proven that money can produce bias in doctors’ considerations, whether they are aware of it or not.
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No one would accept a situation in which journalists reporting on the coronavirus also work for Pfizer, for money, at the same time, without informing readers. And these are just reporters. What physicians decide and do directly impacts public health, sometimes on matters of life and death. This certainly applies to people advising the government on policies. The public has the right to know exactly how much parties with vested interests are paying the physicians.
Prof. Rahav told me that the amounts involved were peanuts, but she did admit that due to the modest wages she and her colleagues receive at the hospital, they need to supplement their income. Prof. Ron Dagan, her colleague in the team advising on the vaccine, also received money from Pfizer and other companies in the past. A few years ago, when I asked exactly how much he received, he got angry: “I won’t tell you how much I get from a drug company without a law requiring me to do so.”
Actually, in the United States there is a law requiring drug companies to maintain transparency, and one can find at a keystroke exactly how many dollars any doctor has received and from which company. This transparency allows one to see whether it’s a matter of trifles, or of perks that could bias one’s judiciousness. It’s time for similar legislation to be enacted in Israel.
The writer is a journalist on TV Channel 13’s Hamakor investigative reporting program.