Members of the government’s task force advising on the hunt for a coronavirus vaccine have recused themselves from discussions 18 times over potential conflicts of interest since June.
But unlike with politicians and other public office holders, Canadians can’t see what conflicts of interest the task force members have declared.
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The COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force is comprised of 12 experts from the medical research and development industry along with four ex-officio members of the federal public service.
Their stated job is to advise the government on COVID-19 vaccines.
But in order to have people considered “leading experts” in the field involved, the government says “the deliberate decision was made to include individuals who may have a real or perceived conflict of interest (COI) with respect to one or more proposals to be evaluated by the (COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force).”
Since the task force formally began its work in June, Global News has confirmed members have declared conflicts of interest and recused themselves 18 times from the talks taking place.
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It’s not possible to know why the members recused themselves, because neither the overarching conflict of interest declarations submitted by the members nor the reasons for specific recusals are publicly listed.
Instead, the declarations of conflicts of interests and the recusal notifications are logged with the secretariat assigned to support the task force and with the department of innovation, science and economic development. Records of recusals, a spokesperson for Innovation Minister Navdeep Bains said, are also logged with the minister in writing.
Asked why the task force members’ conflict of interest declarations are not listed on the public registry run by the ethics commissioner, John Power, press secretary for Bains, said the structure of the task force is in keeping with others like it.
“As a volunteer external advisory body, members of the COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force do not submit their Conflict of Interest declarations to the registry,” he said in an email.
“This process is consistent with the practices of other volunteer external advisory bodies to government.”
The office of Ethics Commissioner Mario Dion confirmed he does not have the authority to oversee conflict of interest processes with volunteer advisory groups, as his powers are specifically related to overseeing conflict of interest rules for those designated as “public officeholders.” The ethics commissioner would only be able to log, review and publish their declarations if cabinet granted that designation to members of the task force.
A government official speaking on background said there are no plans to change the way the task force conflict of interest and recusal records are handled.
Amir Attaran, a professor of public health at the University of Ottawa, argued that the norm in the medical research community is for conflict of interest disclosures to be made public.
He noted that major medical journals like The Lancet and the Canadian Medical Association Journal all require researchers publishing with them to also publish conflict of interest disclosure form at the same time, and said that industry standard should apply to the task force as well.
“When you have doctors or scientists or others making recommendations about what vaccines to buy, the fact that some of them have received money from the same companies is a problem and it has to be transparent,” he said.
Several of the members of the task force have previous employment or past disclosures of conflicts of interest related to work and funding received from major vaccine producers.
Dr. Joanne Langley, one of the co-chairs, has previously declared conflicts of interest in research publications around the grant funding received by her institution — Dalhousie University — from Novavax, Pfizer and Janssen. The latter is a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson.
Novavax, Pfizer and Johnson & Johnson are three of the four firms with which the Canadian government has signed vaccine supply deals. The other is Moderna.
Such declarations are a normal part of the process of publishing medical research.
It is also common for medical researchers to receive grants and funding from a range of sources, including government agencies, educational institutes and pharmaceutical firms. None of that, when properly declared, represents any kind of inappropriate or unprofessional conduct.
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A spokesperson for the National Research Council confirmed that Langley did disclose all of the vaccine companies her institute has ties with in the conflict of interest disclosures she filed to take on the task force role.
“She confirms she did not receive any of the funding from her previous research work,” the statement said. “The funding was received by Dalhousie University who used it to pay costs associated with the studies (e.g. staff, nurses, research assistants, etc.).”
The other co-chair, Mark Lievonen, is the former president of Sanofi’s vaccine division in Canada and was registered to lobby on behalf of the firm as recently as 2016.
Sanofi is currently working on developing a COVID-19 vaccine in partnership with GlaxoSmithKline.
Another member, Michel de Wilde, is also a former vice president at Sanofi and is listed on his LinkedIn page as a current advisory board member for CureVac, a European bioresearch firm in talks to supply the European Union with hundreds of millions of doses of the vaccine it is developing.
Task force members had to sign an agreement vowing not to disclose any information they obtain through the position with any other boards or roles they may hold, and to disclose any potential areas where for they or themselves could benefit financially.
Global News has verified the language in that declaration.
Conflict of interest disclosures key to trust, says expert
Dr. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of The BMJ, said the vaccine research field is one where it is considered particularly difficult to find researchers without some form of a potential conflict of interest and that disclosing those clearly and publicly is essential to maintaining trust.
“I think it’s a basic issue of trust that people want to see what’s gone into decisions or recommendations, and that includes both the person’s expertise and the potential or real influences on any recommendations or decisions they may make,” she said in an interview with Global News.
“It’s become a standard thing.”
Godlee noted that while it’s great the names of the members are public, she doesn’t see why the government would not take the proactive step of publishing their conflict of interest disclosures.
“Anyone with a little bit of work can Google them and find the conflicts of interest that they’ve declared recently and in other roles: publishing in journals or advising in other places,” she said.
“So it just makes it a bit of a hide-and-seek and perhaps in its own way, it makes it look more covert,” she said. “I think that that can damage trust, so it doesn’t seem to me to be a sensible approach.”
Godlee noted that position is surprising to her given the government has been open in acknowledging it made the deliberate decision to seek out individuals who could have conflicts of interests.
“I do think it’s a surprise that they’ve gone to such trouble with this task force to outline the way in which they’re going to manage the conflicts of interest. That’s very laudable,” she said.
“But they’ve missed out this next step — the sort of final step, if you like — of simply declaring those publicly.“
In an interview with Global News earlier in the week, Langley said the process in place for task force members to disclose their conflicts of interest to the government is “rigorous.”
“There is a signed document listing everything that all of us have ever been involved in, whether it’s a perceived or real conflict of interest,” she told Global News. “In addition to that, before every single meeting and every agenda item, there’s a process where we disclose any change or to remind members of what we previously disclosed. So that is an ongoing thing.”
As well, Langley said that each letter going to government ministers that contains the advice provided by the task force includes a notation of related conflict of interest disclosures.
“In the letters, they also will see who disclosed what at every single agenda item, and whether or not the ministers decide to make that public, really, it’s not for me to say.”
But Langley did not say whether she believes those records should be made public.
“I would have to review all the kinds of information that everyone has given to say, is it fair to make that public when people are doing this?” she said. “It’s volunteer service.”