Pamela A. Popper, Ph.D., N.D.

Wellness Forum Health

Conflicts of interest at federal agencies play a major role in the steady stream of incorrect messages people receive daily about diet, health, and medicine. The Centers for Disease Control is no exception.

The agency proclaims its mission as follows[i]:

“CDC works 24/7 to protect America from health, safety and security threats, both foreign and in the U.S. Whether diseases start at home or abroad, are chronic or acute, curable or preventable, human error or deliberate attack, CDC fights disease and supports communities and citizens to do the same.

CDC increases the health security of our nation. As the nation’s health protection agency, CDC saves lives and protects people from health threats. To accomplish our mission, CDC conducts critical science and provides health information that protects our nation against expensive and dangerous health threats, and responds when these arise.”

The CDC claims that the agency, its employees, and associates have no conflicts of interest, but this is not true. A recent article in the British Medical Journal reported that the CDC receives millions of dollars in donations and gifts each year. When asked about this CDC Director Tom Frieden responded via email, “Public-private partnerships allow CDC to do more, faster. The agency’s core values of accountability, respect, and integrity guide the way CDC spends the funds entrusted to it.”[ii] Right.

Even though undeserved, the CDC’s reputation in the minds of most people is that it is  an independent expert source of information and one that offers a guiding hand in developing public health policy. While most doctors and laypeople do not know about the CDC’s cozy relationship with industry and conflicts of interest with its advisory committee members, even those who work at the CDC are often shocked to find out that the CDC takes money from drug makers and other private companies. Former employee Philip Leder, infectious disease specialist at Mass General in Boston says he was “saddened” to learn about the situation.[iii] Furious might be a more appropriate response.

A 2009 Inspector General Report should make us all concerned. According to the report, in 2007, 97% of the financial disclosure reports certified by the CDC for advisory committee members were not complete, and most had more than one omission. The CDC failed to identify or resolve financial conflicts of interest for 64% of employees. Many did not complete ethics training, did not comply with ethics requirements during committee meetings, and some even voted when they were specifically prohibited from doing so based on their conflicts.[iv]

The CDC Foundation was established by Congress in 1995 and is upfront about its role, which it says is to connect “..the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) with private sector organizations and individuals to build public health programs that make our world healthier and safer.” The foundation reports funneling $620 million from private donors to the CDC since its inception.

The foundation says its programs often begin with a CDC scientist who is matched with an outside funding partner, while in other circumstances, private sector corporations realize they can accomplish their own goals more easily by working with the CDC. The foundation advertises that its activities add value for its partners because it “accelerates and expands important public health initiatives that align with their mission and work.”[v]

Considerable money flows from drug and device makers to the CDC through the CDC Foundation. The Foundation’s 2015 annual report states that $157,250,105 was raised during the year, a record amount. The long list of contributors included Abbott, Abbvie, Amgen, Bristol Myers Squibb, Coca Cola, Genentech, Johnson and Johnson, Pfizer, Proctor and Gamble, Sanofi-Aventis, and the Sugar Association of El Salvador.[vi] $16 million of this money was donated for specific purposes.

A $600,000 donation from Genentech for the purpose of expanding testing and treatment for viral hepatitis is an example of how donations can be earmarked.[vii]

Do the donations buy special favors? Genentech makes test kits and treatments for Hepatitis C. Two years after the company’s donation to the CDC Foundation, the agency issued guidelines that included the recommendation to screen everyone born between 1945 and 1965 for hepatitis C.[viii] One of the reasons cited is that newer treatments are more effective. But those newer treatments are also expensive, over $84,000 for one new drug, according to the author of the BMJ article, who says that this and other examples should raise red flags about where the CDC gets its funding.[ix]

An even more obvious example is the CDC’s blatant promotion of both the flu vaccine and Tamiflu, also made by Genentech. Posted on its website is a document titled “CDC Says “Take 3” Actions to Fight the Flu.” The three recommendations are to get a flu vaccine, to take actions to avoid the spread of germs, and to take Tamiflu if your doctor prescribes it.[x]  The problem is that both the flu vaccine and Tamiflu are useless, according to the Cochrane Collaboration, which has issued numerous reports about each during the last several years.[xi] [xii] Cochrane reported in an article in the British Medical Journal that 8 out of the 10 studies claiming that Tamiflu was effective were never published, the two published studies were funded by Roche and concluded that “Paucity of good data has undermined previous findings for oseltamivir’s prevention of complications from influenza. Independent randomised trials to resolve these uncertainties are needed.”  Additionally, the Cochrane researchers report that while Tamiflu has little efficacy it does cause nausea, vomiting, headaches, renal disease, and psychiatric symptoms.

It’s hard to reconcile this information with the CDC’s enthusiasm for flu shots and Tamiflu. Director Tom Frieden says that Tamiflu can “keep you out of the hospital and might even save your life.”[xiii]  While no one can definitively say that donations from industry are responsible for Frieden’s comments and the CDC’s recommendations, the fact that the CDC Foundation takes so much money from Genentech (a Roche company) doesn’t look good.

As if this is not enough, the revolving door between CDC and the private sector also contributes to conflicts. Dr. Julie Gerberding was at one time the Director of the CDC, which aggressively promotes vaccines. Today, she is President of Merck’s vaccine division.[xiv] Merck makes 14 out of the 17 vaccines recommended for children and 9 out of the 10 vaccine recommended for adults by the CDC.

The bottom line is that the CDC has become one more government agency completely corrupted and beholden to industry. The U.S. needs an impartial agency with no industry ties to evaluate medical research and make recommendations to the public. Either the CDC should rid itself of conflicts, or a new agency should be formed and the CDC should be acknowledged as a partner to industry.

[i] http://www.cdc.gov/about/organization/mission.htm accessed April 21 2016

[ii] Lenzer J. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: protecting the private good?”

BMJ 2015;350:h2362

[iii] Lenzer J. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: protecting the private good?”

BMJ 2015;350:h2362

[iv] Office of the Inspector General. CDC’s Ethics Program for Special Government Employees on Federal Advisory Committees. Daniel Levinson, Inspector General December 2009 http://oig.hhs.gov/oei/reports/oei-04-07-00260.pdf

[v] http://www.cdcfoundation.org/who/story  accessed April 21 2016

[vi] http://www.cdcfoundation.org/FY2015 accessed April 21 2016

[vii] Lenzer J. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: protecting the private good?”

BMJ 2015;350:h2362

[viii] http://www.cdc.gov/features/HepatitisCTesting/ accessed April 21 2016

[ix] Lenzer J. “Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: protecting the private good?”

BMJ 2015;350:h2362

[x] http://www.cdc.gov/flu/protect/preventing.htm

[xi] David Payne, editor. “Tamiflu: the battle for secret drug data.” BMJ 2012; 345:e7303

[xii] Jefferson T, Jones M, Doshi P, Spencer E, Onakpova I, Heneghan C. “Oseltamivir for influenza in adults and children: systematic review of clinical study reports and summary of regulatory comments.” BMJ 2014;348:g2545

[xiii] http://www.cdc.gov/media/releases/2015/t0108-flu-update.html

[xiv] http://www.mercknewsroom.com/news-release/corporate-news/merck-announces-appointment-dr-julie-gerberding-executive-vice-president