Thursday, December 30, 2010

Former NIH Director Spins Through Revolving Door, Ends Up at Sanofi-Aventis

A bit of news that got little attention this month was a new job for the former head of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH).  Dr Elias Zerhouni had left the NIH in October, 2008.  Here is the Reuters version of the story of his hew career:
French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis (SASY.PA) replaced its head of research and development with a leading academic and former top U.S. health official on Tuesday to raise its game in medical innovations.

The company said Elias Zerhouni would lead R&D of drugs and bring R&D for vaccines under his control too as Sanofi reshapes its portfolio and looks to vaccines as one area for growth to offset sales losses from mounting generic competition.

The appointment of Zerhouni, a professor of radiology and biomedical engineering, comes as Sanofi battles to buy U.S. rare disease specialist Genzyme.

Chief executive Chris Viehbacher brought in Zerhouni in February 2009 as his scientific adviser, shortly after taking charge of the group which he has been transforming to include the development of drugs based on biotechnology.

Zerhouni's Embrace of Corporate Health Care

Although Zerhouni ostensibly left the NIH to return to academia at Johns Hopkins University, note that by February, 2009, four months after his resignation was announced, Zerhouni was already advising the Sanofi CEO. 

Soon after he joined the corporate health care world in earnest.  In April, 2009, he was proposed for membership on the board of directors of Actelion Ltd, a Swiss biotechnology company.  On December 8, 2009, he was elected to the board of Danaher Corp, a diversified technology corporation which makes medical devices.  At some time he had become President of the Zerhouni Group, which advertised itself as a resource to "pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies, trade organizations, sovereign wealth funds, government agencies, and research entities around the globe."

Zerhouni at the NIH: His Response to the Conflict of Interest Scandal

There is more than a little irony inspired by Zerhouni's quick circuit through the revolving door.

Zerhouni became director of the NIH in 2002, and announced his departure in October, 2008. In December, 2003, David Willman published his landmark article in the Los Angeles Times on severe conflicts of interest affecting NIH scientists and leaders.  It revealed that formerly stringent conflict of interest policies at the Institutes were rescinded by then director Dr Harold Varmus in 1995, during the Clinton administration, and increasingly since 1998, disclosure of NIH personnel's conflicts of interest had been reduced.  Thus, in 2002, Zerhouni had taken charge of an agency already deeply affected by conflicts of interest affecting many of its leaders, even though that was not yet public.  He initially did nothing about the situation. 

Willman published another series of articles revealing even more breathtaking conflicts of interest in December, 2004.  (See our post here.)   By then, a Los Angeles Times editorial said there was the "appearance of corruption" at the NIH, and called for Dr Zerhouni's resignation. 

Only after the second series of articles did Dr Zerhouni swing into action (see post here).  In February, 2005, he announced that he would now hold the NIH to a "higher standard."  Yet new conflict of interest stories kept surfacing and their handling kept provoking concern (e.g., see this post from 2007, and this post from 2008), and concerns about how NIH deals with conflicts of interest affecting the extramural researchers it funds persist to this day (e.g., see this post). 

By the late 1990s, the NIH, like many other government agencies, seemed to have become extremely cozy with the world of big corporations.  Dr Zerhouni did nothing to obvious to reduce the local version of this coziness until it had become a public scandal.  His actions let questions about the relationships of the NIH, once a pristine example of a government run biomedical research agency, with big health care business persist to this day. 

So it should perhaps be no surprise that he so quickly transitioned from the government that is supposed to be"of the people, by the people, for the people" to top leadership positions in corporate health care.

Other US Government Health Care Agency Leaders Transit the Revolving Door

Meanwhile, the previous commissioner of the US Food and Drug Administration, Dr Andrew von Eschenbach, is Senior Director for Strategic Initiatives at the Center for Health Transformation, a group whose membership includes some of the biggest health care organizations, many of which have had their own moments in the sun on Health Care Renewal.  For example, see Charter Members, AstraZeneca, Sutter Health, and Wellpoint; and Platinum Members, GlaxoSmithKline and Merck.  Dr Eschenbach is also on the board of directors of Histosonics Inc. 

Also, the previous director of the Centers for Disease Control, Dr Julie Geberding, became President of Merck Vaccines in late 2009. 


So the revolving door just keeps spinning, its revolutions suggesting how closely tied together big government and big corporations have become in what is now the health care business.  Whatever the motivations of Doctors Zerhouni, von Eschenbach, and Geberding were, the message to every person in a leadership position in health care in the US government has to still be: you too can earn big corporate compensation soon after you leave here.  Who knows how much that siren song will lead current government leaders to avoid antagonizing the leaders of big health care corporations during their government "service."  That is, of course, not what we want them to be thinking about if government agencies ae to serve the people, not the CEOs of big corporations. 

I am sure that the career transitions of Doctors Zerhouni, von Eschenbach, and Geberding were perfectly legal.  If we want government health care agencies to put the peoples' interests ahead of those of the CEOs of big health care corporations, should not, however, the law be changed to at least slow down the revolving door?

1 comment:

John M. Nardo MD said...

"I am sure that the career transitions of Doctors Zerhouni, von Eschenbach, and Geberding were perfectly legal."

Cancer is also legal, though hardly desirable. These career transitions might be stopped by some change in the law, but Zerhouni's behavior at the NIH was obvious enough early on to justify "a Los Angeles Times editorial said there was the 'appearance of corruption' at the NIH, and called for Dr Zerhouni's resignation." One of the best principles of cancer treatment is "early detection and aggressive intervention."