Famous doctors promoted Covid vaccine without confirming payments

The pharmaceutical watchdog was asked to investigate after a string of famous doctors took part in discussions about the Covid vaccine but failed to confirm they had been paid by AstraZeneca.

In recent weeks, a number of high-profile doctors have taken part in debates about the company’s vaccine on prime-time TV shows, but viewers have not been told that they previously received thousands of pounds from the pharmaceutical giant.

In April this year, AstraZeneca admitted for the first time in court documents that its Covid vaccine could, in a small percentage of cases, cause a rare and dangerous side effect. The following month, it emerged that the Oxford-AstraZeneca Covid vaccine is being withdrawn worldwide.

The revelations sparked a new round of debate about the vaccine, with famous doctors being invited to television shows to discuss the result.

AstraZeneca paid £22,500 to Dr Ranj Singh, who regularly appears on the BBC as a talking head, in 2021, according to records from the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI).

Last month, he led a discussion on the BBC Morning Live breakfast show about the safety of the AstraZeneca vaccine and its “serious but rare” complications. He failed to confirm his payments from the pharmaceutical giant to the BBC or viewers.

Dr. Ranj Singh

Dr. Ranj Singh – Matt Frost/TV Stills

A BBC spokesperson said they were not aware of the payments before the show, adding: “The segment on the AstraZeneca Covid vaccine was balanced and reported risks and benefits were covered. We became aware of Dr Ranj’s work for the manufacturer in 2021 after this segment aired and have now addressed this within the show.”

Astra-Zeneca paid £10,000 to Dr Nighat Arif, who appeared on TV during the pandemic including on BBC Breakfast, in 2022.

In April, she appeared on ITV’s This Morning to discuss potential side effects of the AstraZeneca vaccine such as blood clots, which she reassured people are “very, very rare”.

An ITV spokesman said Dr Arif’s analysis was “fair, accurate and fair”, adding: “In his capacity as a medical professional [she] describe the scientific process by which the vaccine may cause a blood clot.

“She pointed out that this was ‘rare’ on the basis that the number of people identified as having suffered a clot as a result of the AstraZeneca vaccine was statistically small compared to the millions of people who received the vaccine. This is according to information published by the Government this year. She also referred to the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines as part of the discussion.”

AstraZeneca paid Dr Phillipa Kaye £12,500 in 2020 and a further £9,000 by the same company in 2022.

Dr Philippa KayeDr Philippa Kaye

Dr Philippa Kaye – Dave Bennett/Getty

During the pandemic she was prominent on social media, posting videos of herself encouraging people to get the Covid vaccine, some of which were officially promoted by the Department of Health.

In one post on X, formerly known as Twitter, in April 2021 she told her followers about the “benefit vs risk of the AZ vaccine”, explaining: “The risk of death from blood clots with the vaccine is one of 2.5 million. If 2.5 million people aged 40 get the Covid 2,000 will die and one in 20 (125,000 people) will have Covid. The benefit outweighs the risk.”

Alex Fell, director of the pharmaceutical regulator, has been asked to investigate whether there have been any breaches of the ABPI code of practice for pharmaceutical companies.

The letter, sent from Graham Stringer and Lord Strathcarron, points out that Clause 24 of the ABPI code requires pharmaceutical companies to include provisions for the disclosure of such payments when they draw up contracts with doctors.

The code states that “in their written contracts or agreements, companies must include provisions regarding the individual’s obligation to declare that they are an individual contracted to the company whenever they write or speak publicly about a matter that subject to the agreement. or any other issue relating to that company”.

The Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA) investigates breaches of the code.

Mr Stringer and Lord Strathcarron, who co-chair the all-party parliamentary group on Pandemic response and recovery, say the watchdog needs action “to maintain confidence in advice from doctors”.

They say: “Whether on TV or in the GP surgery, any payments made to them by pharmaceutical companies should be publicly registered and fully disclosed. If a potential conflict of interest is hidden from the public, it inevitably reduces trust, which is bad for everyone.”

All the doctors have issued similar statements to explain that they were not specifically paid by AstraZeneca in relation to the Covid vaccine. They say they were paid – through a PR firm – to promote the pharmaceutical giant’s nasal flu vaccine.

Dr Nighat Arif said: “I worked with Astrazeneca (through a PR agency) on a public health education campaign about the nasal flu vaccine in winter 2021 only. All payments were announced on the ABPI. To make it clear I have not been paid to promote the Covid vaccine.”

Dr Ranj Singh said: “The AZ Oxford vaccine was launched in 2020/21. I worked with AZ (through a PR company) on a completely separate youth flu campaign in 2022 that was announced for the ABPI. And I haven’t worked with them since. I have never been paid to promote Covid vaccines.”

Dr Phillippa Kaye said: “I have worked with Astrazeneca (through PR agencies) on education campaigns about the nasal flu vaccine only. The last time I was involved with the nasal flu vaccine education campaign was winer 2021. All payments were announced to the ABPI. To be clear, I have not been paid to promote Covid vaccines.”

AstraZeneca declined to comment on the specific cases, but pointed out that this is an area governed by the ABPI code of practice which applies to the entire pharmaceutical industry.

Dr Amit Aggarwal, the ABPI’s executive director of medical affairs, said they are “committed to transparency in the relationships between pharmaceutical companies and NHS professionals, and are proud that Disclosure UK is helping to provide that transparency”.

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