The provincial Health Ministry looks to be trying to mend fences with drug researchers and close the book on a scandal that’s dragged on for almost two years. A July 18 media release boasts that the department has rehired a “renowned” medical-data expert.
But one academic told the Straight a “chill” remains over pharmaceutical investigations in B.C.
“Things will never go back to the way they were,” said Alan Cassels, a drug-policy researcher affiliated with the University of Victoria. “There is probably almost two dozen people who I think have been affected, whose research projects have been shut down, who have been blacklisted, who have had data access denied. So in my opinion, this fixes almost nothing.”
In September 2012, former health minister Margaret MacDiarmid announced that in response to alleged misconduct concerning privacy, all ministry contracts for “drug and evidence development” were suspended. She launched an investigation that summer that eventually resulted in seven people losing their jobs, one of whom committed suicide in January 2013.
Dr. Malcolm Maclure recently joined Robert Hart as the second member of that group to return to work. Despite the government sending out a photograph showing Maclure smiling alongside deputy health minister Stephen Brown, Cassels said scientists have grown nervous of pharmaceutical investigations that might step on the wrong people’s toes.
“The government has proven itself perfectly capable of shutting down important public-interest research,” he said. “If they’ve done it once, they can do it again.”
The Ministry of Health refused to grant the Straight an interview on the topic, as it has done for roughly the past 18 months.
Adrian Dix is a long-time champion of UBC’s Therapeutics Initiative, one of the academic bodies that was caught up in the ministry’s clampdown. In a telephone interview, the NDP MLA for Vancouver-Kingsway argued the public remains without an explanation for why the ministry reacted so severely to alleged misconduct that the province’s information and privacy commissioner deemed relatively minor.
“The damage at a personal level has been great; the damage to the system of drug evaluation, though, has been even more,” he told the Straight. “There was significant drug-evaluation capacity within the Ministry of Health and that has been permanently damaged by this.”