AIDS (Acquired Integrity Deficiency Syndrome) in the Nobel Prize Committee?

Salman Rushdie was probably and unfortunately right when he said that nothing is sacred anymore; the monumental edifice that the Nobel Prize has been for so long a time has now come under fire for tendentious practices in electing candidates for the prize. True, this is not the first time this noble institution has been at the centre of a controversy, but the controversies earlier related to either omission of deserving personalities, most notably M.K.Gandhi, or for the religious adherence to the three-collaborators rule. But this time, the allegations have far-reaching implications putting the very integrity of the process, and hence the prize, at stake.

What is the controversy all about? And how is it even relevant to an IP blog? Let us look at the actors first, that should give us the IP nexus- Anglo-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca, the Swedish anti-corruption agency, two Nobel promotional companies- Nobel media and Nobel web, 2 professors of the Nobel Assembly from the Karolinska Institute and the scientist Haruld Zur Hausen, the 2008 Nobel awardee for Physiology or medicine.

If reports are to be believed, AstraZeneca is alleged to have influenced the Nobel committee into awarding Haruld Hausen the prize for medicine recognising his efforts in discovering the link between between human papilloma viruses and cervical cancer. This, it did, by partly funding the Nobel companies, which are involved in explaining to the masses the work of Nobel laureates in medicine; the company has justified this saying its interest was limited to improving public health. Further, two academics on the Nobel committee have/had strong links to the pharma giant- one of them, Bo Angelin, is on the company’s board of directors and the other, Bertil Fredholm, was a consultant to the company.

What does AstraZeneca (AZ) stand to gain from this? Apparently, the firm holds the patents to ingredients which are used in the manufacture of vaccines used to fight the papilloma viruses; the vaccines are manufactured by Merck and GSK and the benefits to AZ can be gauged from the fact that Canadian capital Ottawa has committed $300 million for vaccination using Merck’s Gardasil. Laura Woodin, manager of media relations for AstraZeneca in the U.S., responded to the reports thus:

Because the Nobel Committee of Karolinska Institute, and not the Nobel companies, elects candidates for the prize, AstraZeneca will not be able to influence who will be awarded the Nobel Prize, nor do we ever seek to.”

As for the Nobel Foundation director, Michael Sohlman, he said that “The foundation has 100 per cent confidence in the integrity of the Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute, as we have in the other prize-awarding institutes”. Swedish anti-corruption prosecutors are actively investigating the issue

Only a few months earlier, Nobel Prize-winning British scientist Sir John Sulston had warned against the rise of what he called “moral corruption”, for which he held the medical industry responsible. One does not entirely support this opinion, yet I do feel this “Nobel-gate” should be an eye-opener and hopefully the issue gets resolved soon without unnecessarily muddling the reputation of a venerable institution.

Having said this, I couldn’t help being cynical; if an academic’s research is funded by an industry group, it is vehemently argued that the work is biased, that it represents industry views and that it is just a mouthpiece for vested interests. Though I strongly disagree with such a proposition, should one apply the same reasoning to the Nobel controversy as well? If yes, then let this issue be viewed and investigated objectively stripped of any sense of awe or sanctity. This, I say because for every individual, his/her reputation is as important as the next person’s (or in this case the institution’s).

That apart, I sometimes wonder how is it that everyone who is anyone, not even a someone, has a go at the pharma industry in full media glare and does so with absolutely no fear of any legal consequences; some have made their careers out of pharma-bashing with concerns over pharma patents becoming the latest weapon in their arsenal. To ably aid them in this these days, there’s of course the ever-ready anti-IP brigade with the pitch becoming shriller with each passing day. Does this mean that the pharma industry tacitly accepts all that is being hurled at it in the name of safeguarding public interest? So does it admit that there is more than just an element of truth in the “anti-pharma diatribe”?

The reason I ask this question is that the literature is so vast with a Goebbels-like feel to it that it becomes next to impossible to separate truth from untruth, or should I say higher truth from lower ones. People do not stop falling sick, recession or no recession, and pharma industry, atleast in my opinion, can rarely fall short of consumers and given the kind of lifestyles we see around us, the numbers should only rise; yet how is it that an entire industry, an extremely critical one at that, is always seen through a tinted glass and accused of being greedy?
I am sure there are quite a few brickbats coming my way for either being naïve or for the inaccuracy of my statements. Nevertheless, I would be delighted to stand corrected, albeit in a polite manner.

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