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Comment: The health firings and public drug policy

I am a University of Victoria professor and one of the eight researchers and others who were wrongly fired by the Ministry of Health in 2012, in an unfortunately very successful attack on drug-safety and effectiveness research.

I am a University of Victoria professor and one of the eight researchers and others who were wrongly fired by the Ministry of Health in 2012, in an unfortunately very successful attack on drug-safety and effectiveness research.

This commentary extends my remarks from the 2017 March for Science. (More than 400 Marches for Science were held around the world on April 22 to defend scientific freedom and evidence-based policies.)

In 2012, the Ministry of Health had an amazing capability for evidence-based policy and real-world drug-safety and effectiveness research, using administrative data. It had taken my co-director 20 years to build, but in the space of two months, it was attacked and dismembered. It needs to be reassembled, this year, not 20 years from now, because until it is, everyone in B.C. taking prescription drugs is at risk.

To give only one example, we had designed a rigorous evaluation of Premier Christy Clark’s pet smoking cessation program, which would have looked carefully at evidence not only of people’s success in quitting smoking, but also examined evidence about the safety of the drugs, which have been linked to suicide, and which were banned in France — for safety reasons — before the B.C. program started.

In all, this vicious attack on science disrupted or destroyed the lives and careers of about 50 outstanding public servants and contractors. My student, Roderick MacIsaac, paid the highest price; he killed himself on Dec. 8, 2012, devastated by the dual loss of his PhD and his future career.

Sadly, we read in the ombudsperson’s report that 11 days before that, on Nov. 27, 2012, the ministry had completed an internal review and determined that MacIsaac had not misused health data, and so should not have been fired. But they never bothered to tell him. He died believing that the RCMP was investigating him, and that he had no future as a researcher.

The ombudsperson’s report fully vindicates everyone who was fired; there were no grounds for dismissal. Many details are provided on the egregious misconduct of investigators and the repeated, deliberate breaches of established public service practices by senior public servants. It makes painful reading for those of us treated so badly, and (as the report documents) has cast a chill over research throughout the public service.

The report says that no evidence of political interference was found. However, this was not a focus of the ombudsperson’s investigation.

Clark said in a 2013 election debate that public drug policy should reflect drug-company interests. This statement came after the health firings. As no one benefited from the health firings except drug companies (they benefited from increased sales due to a lack of drug-safety research), the public is entitled to be skeptical about whether evidence of political influence on the firings had been triple-deleted.

As one of those directly affected, I’m impressed by the painstaking documentation in the ombudsperson’s report. It does an excellent job of explaining the “how” and “what.” It was also wonderful to see the recommendations for apologies, and a scholarship fund in memory of MacIsaac. But I was disappointed that it shed no light whatsoever on the two questions MacIsaac’s sister Linda Kayfish has been asking since 2013: Who fired her brother and why?

At the March for Science, I asked for a moment’s silence in memory of MacIsaac. The crowd of 500 to 700 went completely silent.

We must also consider those who will suffer and die without drug-safety and effectiveness research. Some of the terminated research concerned atypical antipsychotics; other research would have examined new anticoagulants. These and other drugs have serious side-effects, including sudden death.

If MacIsaac had lived, he might have helped save many lives by ensuring that the real-world safety effects of drugs on B.C. patients were fully and promptly understood.

I ended my March for Science speech on a more optimistic note, and will do the same with this letter. The health firings and the ending of drug safety research in B.C. are a tragic chapter in the history of the province. I hope the public demonstration of support at the March for Science is widely felt, and I hope we can re-establish public drug policy that reflects the public interest, instead of drug-company interests.

That is in voters’ hands.


Rebecca Warburton is an associate professor in the School of Public Administration at the University of Victoria.