Paul Offit has been much in the news and blogOsphere lately (Say, here , here and here. Dr. Offit is a vaccine researcher and vocal supporter of vaccines. This makes him a target amongst some groups, leading to a recent example of the “investigative reporting” that CBS news’ Sheryl Attkisson brings to the public.
A big question comes up as to Dr. Offit’s conflicts of interest. Ms. Attkisson’s story brings up a few. Let’s take a look. First we have the fact that Dr. Offit holds an endowed chair:
Offit holds in a $1.5 million dollar research chair at Children’s Hospital, funded by Merck. He holds the patent on an anti-diarrhea vaccine he developed with Merck, Rotateq, which has prevented thousands of hospitalizations.
OK, simple fact check: the endowed chair is $2M, with $500,000 seed money put in by Children’s Hospital of Philidelphia and the University of Pennsylvania.
Not many people have reason to know the details of what an endowed chair is. If I didn’t know better, the above quote makes it sound like the $1.5M from Merck is something akin to a grant, giving Merck some leverage on Dr. Offit. Actually, chair endowments are basically trust funds. In this case, Merck donated $1.5M to CHOP and Penn, who manage the money independent of Merck. These institutions use the proceeds of the endowment to pay for salary and research funds for the chair holder. CHOP and Penn decide who get the chair after Dr. Offit leaves or retires. It is not “His” chair, but the institutions’.
Remember that bit about “research funds”? This is money that allows a the chair holder (Dr. Offit in this case) to do independent research. He doesn’t have to apply for grants, but has a constant supply of money. Merck doesn’t have a say in how he spends those funds.
Isn’t that a good thing? Independent researchers, not beholden to funding agencies?
So, the endowed chair is not a conflict of interest at all.
What other conflict of interest did Ms. Attkisson “unearth”? Well, she noted in the above quote that Dr. Offit is a co-inventor of a patent on a Rotavirus vaccine. She goes on to state:
And future royalties for the vaccine were just sold for $182 million cash. Dr. Offit’s share of vaccine profits? Unknown.
OK, I am going to be picky on details again. Yep, I make a lot of mistakes too, but I gotta get this one out. Dr. Offit doesn’t “hold” a patent on the vaccine. He is an “inventor”. He “assigned” the rights to:
The Wistar Institute of Anatomy and Biology, Philadelphia, PA
The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
I’ll also point out that he is listed as an inventor on about 24 patents worldwide, with about 10 on Rotavirus. Of those, there are multiple US Patents. (I’ll note that Dr. Offit does not list all his patents on his resume.)
I’m sure I’ve made the “holds patent” mistake a lot. I would venture to guess that you might even find the mistake in statements by Dr. Offit. In general, I wouldn’t think “holds patent” is a big deal. He may discuss it as “his” patent because the ideas are “his” and his co-inventors. But, in the financial sense, the patent belongs to the assignee. Initially, this was CHOP and the Wistar Institute. So, why bring it up here? Because, (a) a news reporter should be more accurate and (b) I think the language is important in this specific case.
What Dr. Offit (and his co-inventors) proabably [edit–no probably about it, hat-tip to Scwhartz for catching this] “hold” is an agreement with the assignees (CHOP and the Wistar Institute) for some share of license fees or for bonuses based on the successful licensing of the patent.
That’s how research works. The company or institution takes the risks that a researcher’s work will never pan out. They pay salary, they pay the fees to file patents. Typically, researchers’ shares in license fees are determined before research is completed, often when the researcher is hired.
But, that doesn’t sound as interesting as “He holds a patent licensed for $182 million”, does it?
I’m not going to downplay the likelihood that Dr. Offit made money off of the vaccine patents. I hope he did. But, if he were in it for the money, there were a lot of things he could have done to make more in his career once it became obvious that RotaTeq was likely to succeed. Talking about the lack of science behind the autism/vaccine connection isn’t one of them.
And that’s what this is all about, isn’t it? The implication that Dr. Offit is out for the money. People want to make the public think that he speaks out on vaccine safety because he will get more money.
Well, recall that the future royalties on RotaTeq have been sold. What does that tell us about Dr. Offit’s conflicts of interest? It tells us that the financial COI on RotaTeq is basically over!
Consider the world view of those who claim that Dr. Offit speaks out on vaccine safety to line his own pockets. How much money will Dr. Offit make on RotaTeq if he speaks out on autism issues? How much will he make on RotaTeq if he stops speaking out?
They are the same amount.
So, CBS had two potential COI’s on Dr. Offit: the endowed chair and the RotaTeq royalties. Neither of which is an active COI at this time and into the future.
So, what’s missing from the CBS example of “investigative journalism”? How about a discussion of Dr. Offit’s research grants? Where did the money come to support the research into the vaccine? We all know that CBS must have looked into that. Why nothing in the story? Could it be that there is no story there? Uh huh. The National Institutes of Health funded Dr. Offit’s research on rotavirus. Merck took over the development and testing phase of the vaccine in 1991, but the actual creation of the vaccine occurred without industry funding.
So, did Merck do “payback” and fund Dr. Offit’s research since then? (Again, CBS had to have considered that). Not that I can see. No Merck funded projects are listed in his resume with him as principal investigator.
Quite frankly, I am surprised by how few industry funded research projects Dr. Offit has been principal investigator on. Given his expertise, I would have expected much more industry funding. Much more.
That doesn’t make a good story though, does it?
So, how does Dr. Offit act when a COI is in play? Oddly, this discussion recently occurred on this blog.
Dr. Offit was a member of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention from 1998 to 2003. During this time he had to vote on a competitor’s rotavirus vaccine (RotaShield). (People seem to have a habit of confusing RotaShield with Dr. Offit (and team’s) RotaTeq)
So, when RotaShield, the competitor’s vaccine, came up for vote, what Did Dr. Offit say? He voted to include it in the schedule. It’s hard to spin that as something that would benefit Dr. Offit, as it clearly meant that the marketability of his own vaccine was reduced.
Rotashield was found to potentially cause intussusception. The numbers affected were too small to detect in the trial, so this concern was raised after the vaccine was added to the schedule. the ACIP took a vote on whether to remove RotaShield from the schedule–a move that clearly had potential benefits for Dr. Offit, so he abstained.
I guess that didn’t fit in the CBS story either.
Why are we talking about Dr. Offit again? We can all speculate, but the good folks at the Age of Autism answer the question for us:
Paul Offit is quickly coming under suspicion for his pharma ties and losing his usefulness as a vaccine promoter in the press.
It’s a little hard to pretend that all you do is work at Children’s Hosp. of Philadelphia, when you’ve gotten coverage on CBS and in the
Wall Street Journal because of serious conflicts of interest. Offit’s new book,
“Autism’s False Prophets: Bad Science, Risky Medicine, and the Search for a Cure,” is due out this fall but I hardly think anyone will think of him as a credible independent expert.
Yep, they realize that “Autism’s False Prophets” is soon to hit the shelves of bookstores. I wish I had a copy now, as it must be pretty scary to the Generation Rescue crowd since they are putting on such a big preemptive strike.
I’ve already asked my library to order a copy.
By the way, I love how everyone at Age of Autism is an editor
LeftBrain/RightBrain Antarctic Bureau, Sports Desk.