Federal task force co-chair advised on COVID vaccine despite possible conflict of interest

What the panel discussed or advised the government remains secret, but such conflicts could have influenced the eventual deal with GSK-Sanofi, one critic says

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Drawing on the advice of its vaccine task force last September, the federal government pre-ordered 72 million doses of a product developed jointly by GlaxoSmithKline and Sanofi.

It was the second largest of Ottawa’s vaccine procurement deals, likely worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

But unknown at the time was what came before the purchase. As the 12-member task force met to decide whether to recommend the GSK-Sanofi vaccine, its two leaders each arguably had conflicts of interest. While one recused himself, the other chose not to step away.

Those decisions — revealed after the fact under media pressure — underscore festering concerns about a volunteer committee that has operated largely in secret, and with clear ties to the vaccine industry.

Dr. Joanne Langley, one of the task force’s co-chairs, holds a $700,000 research chair at Dalhousie University partly funded by GSK and has worked with Sanofi on research and as a consultant. But according to the panel’s website, “there were no direct, material linkages,” no conflict and no need to recuse herself from discussing the companies’ product.

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That does not sit right with Dr. Joel Lexchin, a retired York University health policy professor who has long studied conflicts in medical research.

“It does create a problem,” Lexchin said Friday. “I don’t think Dalhousie would necessarily appoint somebody (to the chair) who was going to be critical of decisions that GSK was making.”

What the panel discussed or advised the government remains secret, but such conflicts could have influenced the eventual deal with GSK-Sanofi, he said. The two companies have factories in Canada but have chosen not to make their vaccine here; it’s unknown whether the committee recommended the government push the firms to manufacture locally — or leave the issue unchallenged.

The GSK-Sanofi vaccine, meanwhile, is still under study.

Lexchin has direct experience with another approach. He was part of a committee that gave advice — all of it accepted — on conflicts among members of a similar task force in Australia. Using the same criteria, he said he would at least have barred Langley and co-chair Mark Lievonen, a former president of Sanofi Pasteur, from sitting on the Canadian panel.

As Canadians bristle at the slow delivery of COVID-19 vaccine, the task force’s limited transparency and allegedly competing interests have come under heightened scrutiny.

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The contracts the government struck with drug companies on the committee’s advice have also been kept under wraps.

Federal task force co-chair advised on COVID vaccine despite possible conflict of interest
COVID-19 Task Force Co-chair Dr. Joanne Langley. Photo by nrc.canada.ca

Langley, meanwhile, seems actively involved in the study of another vaccine candidate. She and Dalhousie colleague Scott Halperin are registered as principle investigators on a phase-three trial of the shot developed by CanSino Biologics, a Chinese firm whose controversial deal with Canada collapsed this summer. The task force did not recommend that vaccine.

The Dalhousie professor said Friday the vaccinology chair at Dalhousie pays part of her salary but that GSK and the other, public sector contributors to the program have no influence on her activities.

As for the task force, it had rigorous rules governing conflicts of interest and the group’s secretary advised on how members should handle them, said Langley.

“These were documented and reported to ministers, who take all the decisions based on the advice we gave,” she noted.

The government itself has said it deliberately chose some members who had conflicts in order to tap the best knowledge and expertise available.

In a statement earlier this week, Innovation, Science and Economic Development Canada stressed that the members were volunteers who spent about 200 hours in total meeting to provide the government “sound evidence-based decisions.”

Though the task force was launched in June, it wasn’t until August that its existence and the identity of its unpaid members was officially revealed, and later still that some information on conflicts was released. That came in the form of a chart that indicates potential competing interests and whether the member recused themselves.

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The panel met on Sept. 3 to discuss the GSK-Sanofi candidate, the chart indicates. Co-chair Mark Lievonen is a retired president of Sanofi Pasteur — the company’s Canadian vaccine division — and has $500 in company shares. That was not considered a “direct, material” conflict but he recused himself anyway “out of an abundance of caution,” the site says.

As well as working with Sanofi as a consultant and on research projects, Langley holds the CIHR-GSK Chair in pediatric vaccinology, a research program set up with a $700,000 grant from the company and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

She should have realized that even such “indirect conflicts” matter, said Amir Attaran, a health-law professor at the University of Ottawa.

“This is not peanuts,” he said. “If someone endows you with $700,000 … it is quite reasonable to suppose you will have warm feelings toward them.”

It’s “nonsense” also that the task force did not consider Lievonen, with his years as a Sanofi executive, in conflict, said Marc-Andre Gagnon, a Carleton University professor who studies pharmaceutical industry issues.

It would have been quite possible to fill the task force with people lacking such ties, and if necessary they still could have solicited advice from experts who had industry links, said Gagnon.

Lexchin worries that the conflicts, coupled with the group’s secrecy, will only fuel growing “vaccine hesitancy,” despite ample evidence of the safety and efficacy of the shots now on the market.

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Though it’s not publicly known what happened during task force meetings, it’s also possible its advice could have contributed to the current stuttering supply of vaccine, the critics say.

We don’t know, for instance, whether the group recommended ordering vaccine based on weekly, monthly or quarterly quotas, or whether it called for penalties for not meeting promised supplies, said Lexchin.

It’s even conceivable conflicted members could have advised delaying purchase of certain vaccines to, consciously or not, give a leg up to favoured products, argued Attaran.

• Email: [email protected] | Twitter: tomblackwellNP

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Federal task force co-chair advised on COVID vaccine despite possible conflict of interest