Novartis’ chocolate teapot arguments

According to the Daily Telegraph, Swiss drug company, Novartis, yesterday called a crisis meeting in London of its top execs, medical leaders and others. The Science Minister, David Willetts, was due to attend we are told.

What was the purpose of this meeting? To read us all the riot act about the state of UK clinical research. The warning: they will take their business elsewhere if things don’t improve.

Last week ABPI similarly talked about the ‘decline of clinical research’ at the ‘Partnerships in R&D’ conference. Their co-hosts were the BioIndustry Association (BiA) and NIHR NOCRI.

With the Government’s Autumn Statement on 5th December and the annual report of the Life Sciences Strategy due shortly, this all looks like the sort of posturing that we have become used too. But I wonder how many share my frustration with the rhetoric – to the point that I am beginning to wonder whether this is really the behaviour of a sector currently short on constructive ideas.

The reason I say that is because the evidence of this so-called decline seems to be falling in inverse proportion to the forthrightness with which industry professes it. At the four recent NIHR events for NHS Trust R&D Directors I took part in, three out of the four industry panellists spoke positively about how the UK is now rising up the European league table for clinical research. The mood music was just as positive at the Clinical Discovery conference I spoke at a few months ago (see blog). A private meeting with another company in the last week confirmed as much.

We are very much open for business again, was what I heard. And the legal and policy framework for making research happen in the NHS is better than it ever has been. It just needs as much push from industry and other funders as pull from the inside.

The story on regulatory barriers is also not quite as simple as Novartis makes out. Take consent forms for patients wanting to take part in research. The reason they are 26 pages long and not 2 is not because of some UK regulatory edict. It’s probably just as likely to be due to a pharma company’s legal department in another country whose job it is to stop them being sued.

Meanwhile I am still baffled by the recent discussions I have attended about industry engagement with patients. The ABPI Code of Practice and their members’ interpretation of it seems a major stumbling block. So why did I come away feeling it was my fault and that I should do something about it?

There is a sterility about the industry position and resulting exchanges which should concern us all. A strong industry, committed to health research in the UK is what we all want. But I’m not sure we are going to get there without a shift in attitudes. At last week’s conference Dame Sally Davies concluded the event by saying it was a time for us all to ‘talk up’ what we are doing. I wholeheartedly agree.

In fact, it was interesting to compare the twitter feed from the ABPI conference last week, with that which emanated from the European Medicines Agency (EMA) conference about transparency in clinical trial data taking place in London at the same time. By all accounts – I think the BMJ covered it – there was a robust debate. Mark Walport from the Wellcome Trust talked about the need for a meeting of minds. EMA is setting up a number of working groups to take work forward and I believe people (including lay representatives) can put forward nominations for membership of these from 1st December. We move forward.

It is perhaps also telling that – aside from GSK’s move – the really interesting ideas for improving transparency are coming from outside pharma. Or so it seems. Some of the best reporting on pharma is to be found in the US Forbes Magazine. I noticed that today one of its bloggers was advocating a Central Bureau for handling publication of all trial data or something along those lines. When I’m off this train I’ll post the link. Anyway, it’s worth pondering. The bottom line is that I no longer know what pharma’s proposition is on this or most other matters.

Perhaps the real crisis meeting is therefore that which needs to happen within industry itself. Because it needs to change for all our sakes.

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