Background Concerns were raised about the competing interests amongst scientists on advisory committees during the 2009/10 H1N1 influenza pandemic, particularly given the substantial public expenditure on antiviral drugs and vaccines. The media is known to strongly influence public demand for new drugs and policy decisions, and many scientists commented on the use of pharmaceutical products/emerging health risks during the 2009 H1N1 pandemic in the UK media. This study assessed competing interests for the scientists promoting or rejecting the use of antivirals and/or vaccines in newspaper articles during the early pandemic.
Methods We performed a retrospective content analysis of United Kingdom national newspaper articles on H1N1 influenza published during the period when the government decided its policy on antiviral/vaccine provision (20 April and 5 July 2009). Two reviewers coded 436 articles independently and identified those scientists promoting or rejecting the use of antivirals/vaccine according to a pre-specified protocol. Competing interests for these named scientists were then identified through a systematic search for potential or previously declared interests.
Results One in two scientists commenting on the use of antiviral/vaccines in H1N1 influenza had undisclosed competing interests. Potential competing interests were identified in 6 of the 9 scientists (66.7%) promoting vaccine use; 6 of the 10 scientists (60%) promoting antivirals; and 1 of 4 scientists (25%) rejecting antiviral use. The nature of these competing interests ranged from study funding to directorships of pharmaceutical companies. Only three articles made clear that the scientist concerned had a link with pharmaceutical companies.
Conclusion This study showed substantial competing interests amongst scientists commenting on the use of antivirals and/or vaccines in H1N1 influenza during the period the UK government was deciding its pharmaceutical policy. Since commentaries in the media provide an alternative route for external pressure on health policy decisions, scientists should declare any potential competing interests for media interviews as for journal articles.
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