MARK COLVIN: The vitamin and supplement company Swisse Wellness has launched a strident defence of its deal to fund a research centre at Melbourne’s La Trobe University.
Under the deal, the company will contribute $15 million over six years to establish the centre, which would scientifically examine the quality and efficacy of its products.
A prominent public health academic has resigned from the university over the deal, saying it’s a conflict of interest which will tarnish the university’s reputation.
But Swisse says there’s nothing new in its plan because pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology companies already contribute about two-thirds of the total funding for medical research in Australia.
Ashley Hall reports.
ASHLEY HALL: When La Trobe University announced a little over a month ago that it had signed a deal with Swisse Wellness to fund a complementary medicine research centre, it ignited a storm of comment among academics.
The university’s world-renowned public health physician, Ken Harvey, felt so strongly he submitted his resignation.
Dr Harvey has long campaigned against what he argues are misleading claims made by the complementary medicine company about its products, and in his view, the $15 million deal represents a conflict of interest for the new centre and the staff involved.
KEN HARVEY: It’s a touch ironic, they appear to be wanting to perform research to prove efficacy, which they’re meant to have proven already. In practice, you know, I believe that this is just a marketing deal.
ASHLEY HALL: It’s taken about a month for the vitamin and supplements giant to formally respond to concerns about the deal.
In a strongly-worded statement, Swisse today outlined the objectives of its research plan and defended the probity of its relationship with La Trobe University.
Radek Sali is the chief executive of Swiss Wellness. He spoke to me from the United States on a scratchy mobile phone line.
RADEK SALI: We went through an extensive process with many universities across Australia, and they met all of the criteria that was essential to us. And part of that was the independent research, ticking government support, and having the right facilities and a team to be able to execute a number of vast scientific and clinical trials on our behalf.
ASHLEY HALL: Swisse points out that pharmaceutical, medical device and biotechnology companies contribute about two-thirds of total funding for research in those areas, and that of the $800 million of government money available for health and medical research, only $800,000 is allocated to complementary and alternative medical research.
So Radek Sali asks: why shouldn’t industry-funded research take up the slack?
RADEK SALI: If you look at all of the top 10 prescribed drugs here in Australia, there are industry funded trials that back up the evidence that support the use of those products.
ASHLEY HALL: But Dr Ken Harvey, who’s also a member of the government’s Complementary Medicines Review Panel, says there’s an important distinction in this case.
KEN HARVEY: That research is put to the independent regulators, the Therapeutics Goods Administration, it’s evaluated independently to see if that product should get up. Now, that’s very different to complementary medicines, and it’s very different to what Swisse is proposing.
ASHLEY HALL: In criticising of the company, Dr Harvey refers to a case decided last year, in which a complaint resolution panel asked the company to withdraw 20 advertisements containing claims that couldn’t be supported by evidence.
But Swisse’s chief executive Radek Sali rejects the suggestion the company has misled the public in its advertising.
RADEK SALI: For 14 years prior to it was signed off by a representative of the TGA, and yes it went before a CRP panel, and they found otherwise. So for us, we respect that decision. We don’t necessarily agree with it, we’re abiding by it. We’ve never had to print a retraction. It was a minor issue, minor semantic issue. We haven’t been fined.
ASHLEY HALL: That’s not the way Dr Harvey sees it.
KEN HARVEY: The CEO can talk about complaints that were upheld, about the company misusing research results, claiming ‘clinically proven’ when the data wasn’t there, he can call that mere semantics, I call that pretty serious stuff.
ASHLEY HALL: This has also become quite personal. The statement that the company put out today had a go at you, suggesting that your resignation was simply designed to attract attention to yourself, that you were planning retirement anyway. How do you respond to that?
KEN HARVEY: Look it’s true I was – I turn 70 this year, I was planning actually to slow down and retire at the end of this year. That had nothing to do with my resignation from La Trobe, which was purely in concern with the deal proposed with Swisse.
But again, I think Swisse will be happy to know that as a result of the publicity and many colleagues asking me to keep on keeping on, I have postponed by retirement. And equally well, another university that turned down the Swisse offer has in fact invited me to be an adjunct professor at their university, and I have accepted that.
ASHLEY HALL: For its part, Swisse also accuses Dr Harvey of hypocrisy for criticising the lack of available research to support complementary medicines, while opposing a research project that might address that.
The company argues its critics are acting on their own vested interests, specifically strong links to the pharmaceutical industry.
That’s a view Dr Harvey rejects.