National Immunization Commission

Officials hit by charges of graft

Medics, officials enjoyed ski trips and sightseeing excursions to Australia

Hundreds of Czech doctors, pharmacists and government officials have been implicated in a global bribery scandal involving the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer, while another international drug company has acknowledged it collaborates with most of the members of the National Immunization Commission, the body that determines which vaccines are mandatory.

Corruption fighters say the cases highlight the need for “absolute transparency” and “adequate reporting” within the 59 billion Kč Czech pharmaceutical market, which is the region’s second-largest.

Pfizer Inc, the world’s leading drug maker by sales has agreed to pay a U.S. fine totaling $60.2 million (1.2 billion Kč) after authorities uncovered the bribery practices across Europe and Asia.

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission alleges Pfizer employees in eight countries including Bulgaria, China, Croatia and the Czech Republic made “improper payments” to foreign officials to obtain regulatory approvals, sales and increased prescriptions for the company’s products.

At least 920 Czechs were sent to seminars in foreign countries between 2003 and 2004, according to court documents lodged in Washington, D.C.

“Pfizer Czech, through its employees and agents, provided support for international travel and recreational opportunities to doctors employed by the Czech government with the intent to influence these government officials to prescribe Pfizer products,” the papers state.

During the same period, Pfizer’s sales in the Czech Republic grew 63 percent, from 2 billion to nearly 3.5 billion Kč.

In its complaint, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission detailed how, in October 2004, Pfizer Czech paid for a group of Czech government-employed doctors and pharmacists to visit a Pfizer manufacturing facility in the West Australian city of Perth.

“In connection with the site visit, Pfizer Czech provided sightseeing opportunities for the government doctors, including layovers in Hong Kong, visits to Australian landmarks and additional free time in Australia at the end of the program.”

“At least one of the attending doctors participated in meetings of a committee that advises the Czech Health Ministry on drug reimbursement issues,” the document adds.

According to the commission, Pfizer Czech organized and sponsored approximately 10 “educational weekends” from 2003 through 2004, attended by approximately 920 healthcare professionals, including doctors employed by the government.

“The events were held at resort destinations, including ski resorts in Austria and Slovakia, usually over a three-day period. The events typically included skiing or other recreational activities for the majority of the weekend and had little legitimate promotional or educational content.”

The court documents state that “Pfizer Czech employees took steps to conceal the true nature of these transactions, and failed to accurately record these transactions by falsely booking them as ‘Conventions and Trade Meeting,’ among other false and misleading descriptions.”

Marie Součková and Milada Emmerová (Social Democrats, ČSSD), who were both health ministers during 2003 and 2004, have rejected any government connection to the bribery.

“On the road, I saw a story on TV, but it concerned specific physicians and not any officials from the ministry,” Emmerová told daily Hospodářské noviny (HN).

Similarly, Součková said she knew of no ministerial staff who took any trips from any pharmaceutical companies.

The management of Pfizer Czech refused to comment on the case, leaving official statements to be made at the group level from the company’s New York headquarters.

“The actions which led to this resolution were disappointing, but the openness and speed with which Pfizer voluntarily disclosed and addressed them reflects our true culture and the real value we place on integrity and meeting commitments,” Pfizer General Counsel Amy Schulman said.

“I am sure it is a serious blow to the corporate reputation of Pfizer, and they have to take practical steps toward a completely new approach on corporate compliance,” said David Ondráčka, the spokesman for Transparency International in the Czech Republic.

Pfizer is not the only international pharmaceutical company to come under recent scrutiny for its business practices in the country.

GlaxoSmithKline has acknowledged it collaborates with most of the members of the National Immunization Commission, in charge of deciding which vaccines are mandatory. According to HN, some members of the commission have received payments from pharmaceutical companies.

It cited a recent vaccination symposium organized by the First Medical Faculty Charles University in which the invitation read, “The organization of the symposium was made possible by generous support provided by GlaxoSmithKline.”

National Immunization Commission Chairman Michael Vít is currently being prosecuted for suspicion of rigging contracts at the Health Ministry. Doctor and Senator Alena Dernerová has also hit out at the practice, saying anyone who decides vaccine or drug policy should not also work with pharmaceutical companies.

“A certain level of collaboration is logical and acceptable, especially when there are so few experts in these fields,” Ondráčka said. “Pharma-business plays a role in research and unavoidably gets contact with the academic sector. However, what is critical on both sides is absolute transparency and adequate reporting of all contacts, sponsoring, hospitality or gifts, in order to avoid conflicts of interest.”

The Czech Medical Association did not respond to questions for comment by press time.

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