Sunday, October 28, 2007

DOES BIG PHARMA HAVE A NEW SHILL?

In the little-over-two years I’ve been blogging, I have avoided labeling individuals with whom I disagree as “Pharma shills.” It’s a label that is too often thrown around without any substantial support, and it only distracts from the discussion. The only person, thus far, to earn that title from me has been Dr. Paul Offit. And let’s face it, that shoe fits him like the glass slipper fit Cinderella.

That being said, an op-ed piece appeared recently that has made me wonder if there might be someone else in the debate who might be a “Pharma shill.” To keep you from any suspense, the answer is: I don’t know yet, but I can’t rule it out.

Published in differfent locations under the titles, ‘Suffer the Little Children’ No More and Another Blow Against Vaccine Hysteria ⎯ Or Is It, a fellow by the name of Michael Fumento engages in hyperbole after hyperbole to argue his opinion that vaccination is perfectly safe and has, without any room for question, been cleared of any suspected role in the triggering of the current epidemic of developmental disorders (including autism spectrum disorders).

It’s not just that Mr. Fumento ignores that the gradual evolution of the environmental/vaccine hypothesis has moved it beyond looking solely at thimerosal. We’ve come to expect that the defenders of the vaccine industry want to keep the discussion on mercury because it becomes that much easier to quote half-baked epidemiological studies focusing only on that aspect and not upon the processes themselves by which mercury and other toxins trigger disease in our children. No, it’s the snarkiness of his commentary and the over-the-top manner in which he argues his point that set Mr. Fumento apart. Here’s how he starts out:
The vaccine preservative thimerosal has jumped the safety hurdle. Again. So indicates a recent large epidemiological study in the New England Journal of Medicine. “Again” is the problem, though. One huge study after another has cleared thimersorosal as a cause of child developmental disorders, and specifically autism, but there is a powerful lobby that couldn’t care less.
By “one huge study after another,” I suppose he means the Verstraeten study, which after the “helpful feedback” received at Simpsonwood managed to remove the unmistakable connection between thimerosal and autism. What was left ⎯ in the principle author’s words ⎯ was a “neutral study,” i.e., one that proved nothing. Or maybe Mr. Fumento is referring to the Danish study which changed the study criteria halfway through, leaving the absurd impression that a mercury-based preservative actually protected children from autism.

But it was Mr. Fumento’s paranoid reference to “a powerful lobby” that made me do a double-take. That is absolutely Offitian in tone. What organization or group do we have on our side that could possibly have the clout to affect public policy that PhRMA has?

So who is this Michael Fumento? His canned bio tells us he is “an author, journalist, and attorney specializing in science and health issues,” and “he is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.” So that tells us he’s a smart guy who is generally friendly toward big business. But what can one find by looking beyond the official bio?

Michael Fumento has been a busy guy through the years. In arguing that the pesticide Alar was perfectly safe on apples, Fumento once wrote that the public questioning of safety claims was “one of the slickest hype campaigns in recent American history.” He has repeatedly complained about the attention and resources devoted to combating the AIDS epidemic, referring to it as a “politically correct disease.” He refers to Gulf War Syndrome as a mere myth. The deference he shows studies issued by official agencies is apparently not absolute. He sharply criticized the surgeon general's findings regarding the dangers of second-hand smoke; Mr. Fumento seems to think there's no real health hazard in having cigarette smoke blown into one's face. In looking at what Mr. Fumento has written about pharmaceutical issues, I discovered that he had addressed the vaccine-autism connection on previous occasions, some of it during his stint with the Scripps-Howard News Service.

It is the demise of his relationship with Scripps Howard that gives us a glimpse into Mr. Fumento’s character. This what Business Week reported in January 2006:
Scripps Howard News Service announced Jan. 13 that it’s severing its business relationship with columnist Michael Fumento, who’s also a senior fellow at the conservative Hudson Institute. The move comes after inquiries from BusinessWeek Online about payments Fumento received from agribusiness giant Monsanto ⎯ a frequent subject of praise in Fumento’s opinion columns and a book.

In a statement released on Jan. 13, Scripps Howard News Service Editor and General Manager Peter Copeland said Fumento “did not tell SHNS editors, and therefore we did not tell our readers, that in 1999 Hudson recieved a $60,000 grant from Monsanto.” Copeland added: “Our policy is that he should have disclosed that information. We apologize to our readers.” In the Jan. 5 column, Fumento wrote that St. Louis-based Monsanto has about 30 products in the pipeline that will aid farmers, “but also help us all by keeping prices down and allowing more crops to be grown on less land.”
The basics are that Monsanto made gave $60,000 in 1999 to the Hudson Institute to support a book on agri-business written by Mr. Fumento. For his part, Mr. Fumento down-played the payments, explaining that “I’m just extremely pro-biotech.” With regard to the Scripps Howard piece, Mr. Fumento stated that “he sees no conflict of interest . . . because the grant came several years ago,” and he thought “there’s a statute of limitations on that.” Monsanto, on the other hand, declared that its financial relationship with the Hudson Institute was “ongoing,” although it denied any wrongdoing with the Scripps Howard article.

In the absence of information regarding financial relationships between vaccine manufacturers and either the Hudson Institute or Mr. Fumento, it’s impossible to state whether this guy is a shill or just a very obnoxious idealogue. On such questions, I often resort to the “duck test,” which looks to the apparent nature of something. If it quacks like a duck, has feathers like a duck, and waddles like a duck, you are more probably than not looking at a duck. So far, Mr. Fumento is quacking rather loudly. Time will tell if he has feathers and waddles.

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