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Concern as Novartis exec approved to WHO group

Herrling has put forward a proposal to raise vital funds for research into diseases such as dengue fever Keystone

An executive at Swiss group Novartis has been appointed to a World Health Organization body advising on research despite criticism it may lead to a conflict of interest.

Paul Herrling, the Swiss head of corporate research at pharmaceutical concern Novartis, was among 21 people approved this week to join a WHO expert group evaluating funding for projects into neglected tropical diseases – those illnesses affecting the poorest populations.

He is the only expert in the group who is also an executive in the drugs industry.

Concerns were flagged up at the latest World Health Assembly meeting, with member states stressing the need for transparency in the workings of the group and “the need to assure a robust management of all possible conflicts of interest of members of the group”.

In announcing the new membership of the group, the WHO assistant director-general Marie-Paule Kieny said the utmost care would be taken to ensure all possible conflicts of interest were dealt with.

So where does Herrling’s potential conflict of interest lie, beyond being an industry executive?

The Swiss is also the author of a proposal to the same working group for a new funding model that would allocate $10 billion (SFr9.42 billion) in grants to fund research by pharmaceutical firms as well as public research institutes and public private partnerships. 

 “Tone deaf”

“It is a conflict of interest for Paul Herrling to evaluate his own proposals,” James Love, of the non-profit advocacy group Knowledge Ecology International, told

“It is not a trivial issue, given that the proposals involve billions of dollars in various subsidies to for-profit pharmaceutical companies, and many controversial aspects of the management of the funds.”

Love said the WHO were being “tone deaf” to industry conflicts and pointed out that the choice of Herrling went against WHO’s own conflict of interest guidelines which call for “a good faith effort to find individuals who do not have interests that may give rise to a real or perceived conflict of interest to serve as experts in scientific or technical advisory meetings”.

He added that there were “countless” people supportive of big pharmaceuticals or with industry experience who could have been considered.

Déjà vù?

Worries over pharmaceutical lobbies yielding an influence on the WHO also surfaced last year.

Documents published by WikiLeaks showed that the International Federation of Pharmaceutical Manufacturers had been given a sneak preview of a confidential report by the same WHO working group on research and development (albeit with a different line-up). As a result most suggestions challenging the the system of intellectual property rights beloved of the industry were removed.

Faced with the controversy, the WHO decided to disband the working group and create another that would be elected by member states. 

This time, the WHO says it set out to achieve a gender balance and diversity of technical expertise in the make-up of the expert working group.

“I’ll do my best”

In an email from Singapore, where he also heads the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases, Herrling told “If the Swiss government and the WHO board think it might be valuable to bring in my experience of neglected diseases R&D [research and development] and my thoughts on R&D funding to the working group, I am very willing to do my best to help even if it attracts criticism from some quarters.”

He added that his views on the Novartis proposal for the $10 billion research funding model, named the Fund for Research and Development in Neglected Diseases (FRNID) were out in the open.

“If issues around FRNID come up to a vote in the working group I think the group will together have to decide how to handle it just as with similar issues other members of the group might have,” he stated.


The affair won’t be helping to quash discontent about WHO’s handling of conflicts of interest.

During last year’s swine flu pandemic, the WHO was also criticised for withholding the names of scientific advisors who took part on its pandemic flu panel. Those names were only released once the pandemic was declared over.

Among those on the flu panel were several experts who acted as consultants for pharmaceutical companies or whose work in labs was funded by vaccine producers.  

The WHO said no potential conflicts of interest were big enough to exclude the experts from the panel. But the Council of Europe took a stand on the issue, criticising the WHO’s lack of transparency.

Neglected tropical diseases (NTDs) affect the lives of one billion people and threaten the health of millions more.

They are called neglected because these diseases persist exclusively in the most marginalised communities, and have been largely eliminated elsewhere and thus are often forgotten.

There are 17 diseases currently listed as NTDs, including tropical diseases such as malaria, lymphatic Filiariasis, Chagas disease and dengue fever.

Most can be prevented and eliminated. They thrive in places with unsafe water, poor sanitation, and limited access to basic health care. They cause severe pain and life-long disabilities.

The Drugs for Neglected Diseases initiative says of the 1,556 new drugs approved between 1975 and 2004, only 21 (1.3%) were specifically developed for tropical diseases and tuberculosis, even though these diseases account for 11.4% of the global disease burden.

Paul Herrling is the head of corporate research at Novartis.

He is also chairman of the board of the Novartis Institute for Tropical Diseases in Singapore.

He is also professor of Drug Discovery Science at Basel University.

Previously he was head of Global Research at Novartis Pharma and a member of the Pharma Executive Committee.

He obtained his PhD in 1975 at Zurich University.

He joined Sandoz Pharma in 1975 and in 1985 became head of the Sandoz Research Institute Bern and head of the Preclinical CNS Research Department at Sandoz Pharma in Basel.

In 1992, he was made head of Preclinical Research Basel for Sandoz Pharma and, in 1994, Head of Corporate Research. 

He serves on several boards, including the Board of Trustees of the Novartis Foundation in London and the Board of Trustees of the Fondation Maison de la Chimie in Paris.

He is also director of Chiron in Emoryville, California, and of the TSRI-Novartis Joint Scientific Council in La Jolla.

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