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CAUT Bulletin Archives

January 1999

Independent Inquiry Needed in Olivieri Scandal

Bill Graham
When Dr. Nancy Olivieri defied threats of legal action by the powerful drug company Apotex and intimidation by her own hospital administration she was putting the safety of her patients first, above her own safety and her career. Professor Arthur Schafer, director of the centre for professional and applied ethics at the University of Manitoba, has called the dispute at the Hospital for Sick Children "the greatest academic scandal of our time." It involves the most fundamental issues of patient safety, research integrity, academic freedom, and public health versus private, for-profit drug ventures.

The hospital at first tried to avoid the issues, labelling the affair a scientific dispute. When prominent persons, including Nobel Prize Laureate John Polanyi, protested, the hospital set up a tainted review process under the leadership of former University of Manitoba President Arnold Naimark, about whom serious questions of conflict of interest could be raised. It muddied the waters further by allowing Naimark unilaterally to select two associate reviewers af-ter much of the investigatory work had been completed. It consistently refused to accept Dr. Olivieri's suggestions for reviewers and left her with no alternative but to refuse to cooperate with the tainted review. The Naimark report is now released and is woefully inadequate. It does not deserve the stamp of scientific or public credibility.

Throughout the entire scandalous proceedings Dr. Olivieri was left with no legal, professional or moral support from the hospital and the University of Toronto, where she is a professor of pediatrics and head of the haemoglobinopathy program. Despite pleas for help from Olivieri and her close supporters, the two institutions did not provide her with the assistance she needed to defend her academic freedom, research integrity, and the safety of her patients. Indeed, the hospital administration itself engaged in harassment and intimidation, including attempts at constructive dismissal. She continues to be harassed today, as do three of her closest supporters, Dr. Brenda Gallie, Dr. Helen Chan, and Dr. Peter Drurie.

All the while the University of Toronto has been courting the drug company, Apotex, for a donation of between 20 and 30 million dollars. In his report, Professor Schafer wrote, "The crisis of government underfunding appears to be leading even our most famous universities and hospitals to behave as pliable supplicants to corporate sponsors. If eminent public institutions can, at the behest of the pharmaceutical industry, become complicit in the attempt to censor scholarly work, then no scientist in Canada can feel that her academic freedom is secure. And the confidence of patients in the objectivity of scientific research is certain to be put at risk."

Only an independent and unimpeachable inquiry into the scandal at the Hospital for Sick Children and the University of Toronto can restore public and scientific confidence in the two great public institutions. CAUT can and should play a role in establishing a fully independent and external inquiry.