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Lawrie McFarlane: Therapeutics Initiative worth rescuing

Tuesday’s announcement by Adrian Dix, leader of the B.C. New Democrats, that he plans to rescue the Therapeutics Initiative concludes (hopefully) one of the more disgraceful episodes in our recent political history.

Tuesday’s announcement by Adrian Dix, leader of the B.C. New Democrats, that he plans to rescue the Therapeutics Initiative concludes (hopefully) one of the more disgraceful episodes in our recent political history.

The Therapeutics Initiative is a small watchdog agency at the University of B.C. It tracks new drugs after they’re introduced and reports on their effectiveness.

The agency has discovered lethal side-effects in several highly touted pharmaceuticals, preventing an estimated 50 deaths in B.C. alone. By finding cheaper treatments that work just as well, it has also saved taxpayers tens of millions of dollars.

But that has brought down on the handful of researchers who do this work the undying hatred of the drug industry. Throughout the lifespan of the current B.C. Liberal government, unrelenting pressure was brought by the industry to kill the Therapeutics Initiative.

This led to a brutal, enervating war of attrition that took a remarkable form. Every couple of years, the health minister of the day would emerge with a new plan to curry favour with the industry by variously muzzling, throttling or kneecapping the Therapeutics Initiative.

And every time the word got out, it would be met with a storm of criticism from watchful observers. Some of this push-back took the form of opinion pieces in local newspapers. Some of it appeared on the editorial pages of professional journals.

A British commentator called the Therapeutics Initiative “the only source of critical assessment of new treatments in Canada that is not political or partisan.”

The New England Journal of Medicine weighed in with its backing. The Canadian Medical Association Journal printed a strongly supportive opinion piece.

The B.C. auditor general published positive reviews of the agency. UBC’s Faculty of Medicine commissioned its own study, and letters of support poured in from all over the western world.

You would think that by this point, someone in government would have got the message. But after each setback, the government dug deeper in the search for a magic formula.

Eventually, some bright light came up with the perfect solution: Set up a panel, make sure it’s weighted down with industry representatives and ask them to bring in a report.

Sir Humphrey Appleby, central character of the British satirical sitcom Yes, Minister, couldn’t have done better himself. And just as in the comedy, moments of hilarity ensued.

The panel declared that the Therapeutics Initiative was “narrow, insular and resistant to meaningful stakeholder engagement.” Some of us thought that a compliment.

After all, by “stakeholder,” the panel meant “the drug industry.” For “narrow, insular and resistant,” you could substitute “refused to be bullied.” These were faults?

Nevertheless, on such slim and laughable grounds, the panel brought down a death sentence.

It’s said the Roman emperor Caligula appointed his horse to the Senate.

Maybe so. But at least the animal would have known horse manure when it saw some.

Not so George Abbott, the minister of health at that time. He gratefully embraced the report, and the agency’s budget was halved, then the remainder was frozen.

Finally, in a moment of spite a few weeks ago, the current minister Margaret MacDiarmid appears to have severed all contact with the agency. Staff with international reputations are being laid off, and critical drug research has been halted.

Which brings us to last Tuesday’s announcement. Dix promised to restore the agency’s budget of $1 million and double it. Good for him.

Of course, that only means anything if the NDP win the election next month. But however it turns out, this was a brazen piece of pandering, and worse.

The politicians who took part in it should be ashamed of themselves.

Lawrie McFarlane is a retired civil servant. He was deputy health minister in B.C. during the mid-1990s.

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