Conflict-of-Interest Inquiry May Be Reopening at NIH

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 31, 2007

Federal investigators are reviewing the activities of 103 scientists who may have had improper links to pharmaceutical companies while they were employed at the National Institutes of Health, apparently resurrecting a conflict-of-interest inquiry that many in the agency thought was closed.

In a letter sent to several members of Congress on March 23 and made public yesterday, Daniel R. Levinson, inspector general for the Department of Health and Human Services, said his office is looking into the cases "to determine whether investigation is warranted."

Levinson also wrote that his office is reviewing whether NIH is adequately monitoring potential conflicts of interest among its thousands of grant recipients -- typically university researchers.

Members of Congress and watchdog groups have long called for such a review, noting that conflict-of-interest policies at universities are generally more lenient than those at NIH. The concern, critics say, is that federal grant money not go to scientists who may be predisposed to get results that favor their drug company sponsors.

Scientific and academic organizations counter that adequate safeguards are already in place and fear that many of the nation's best scientists would leave the federally funded research enterprise if options for outside income were lost.

NIH officials had already looked into the 103 cases of possible conflict of interest in 2004, after a congressional inquiry suggested that scores of researchers may have taken drug industry money without approval. As a result of that investigation, NIH Director Elias A. Zerhouni in 2005 banned all such consulting by NIH employees.

Agency investigators concluded that about half of those who were suspected of wrongdoing and who were still employed at NIH (and thus available for questioning) had indeed violated policies, including 10 who the agency concluded may have violated federal law.

NIH referred only those 10 cases to the HHS Office of Inspector General (OIG), which referred two to the Justice Department for possible prosecution. One resulted in a conviction for criminal conflict of interest; the other is still pending.

With new ethics policies in place and the 2008 budget fight starting, many in the agency had hoped that the worst was behind them. But the Levinson letter suggests not.

A spokesman for Levinson said he was not at liberty to say why the OIG had renewed its interest in the cases. But the letter -- made public by the House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has spearheaded inquiries into NIH for years -- said the review began about six months ago. That is about when committee members complained loudly that too many of those who were found to have violated NIH rules had gotten off with only modest disciplinary action.

In a joint statement released yesterday, Energy and Commerce Chairman John D. Dingell (D-Mich.) asserted that "NIH bungled the investigation the first time around," and ranking Republican Joe L. Barton (Tex.) expressed hope that the inquiry "will finally sort things out so everyone can have confidence that the public's interest is being fully served."

NIH spokesman John Burklow said: "We welcome the additional review; however, we are confident in the rigor of our process."

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