Conflicts of Interest in Vaccine Safety Research
Department of Economics and Finance, Baruch College, New York,
New York, USA
Conflicts of interest (COls) cloud vaccine safety research. Sponsors of research have competing interests that may impede the objective study of vaccine side effects. Vaccine manufacturers, health officials, and medical journals may have financial and bureaucratic reasons for not wanting to acknowledge the risks of vaccines. Conversely, some advocacy groups may have legislative and financial reasons to sponsor research that finds risks in vaccines. Using the vaccine-autism debate as an illustration, this article details the conflicts of interest each of these groups faces, outlines the current state of vaccine safety research, and suggests remedies to address COls. Minimizing COls in vaccine safety research could reduce research bias and restore greater trust in the vaccine program.
How safe are vaccines? Health officials caution that no vaccine is 100% safe, but they sponsor studies that conclude the benefits of vaccines far outweigh the risks. Yet conflicts of interest (COls) cloud the study of adverse effects of vaccines, and public skepticism about vaccine safety information is widespread (ASTHO, 2010). Investigation into the possible link between childhood vaccines and autism provides an illustration of the competing interests that sponsors of vaccine safety research face that could affect their objectivity in choosing which studies to support. Much research is sponsored by vaccine manufacturers and public health bodies, who have financial and bureaucratic interests that could impede the objective study of vaccine safety. These companies and agencies adamantly deny a link between vaccines and autism, and argue that vaccines are one of the most important innovations in disease reduction in the 20th Century (CDC, 1999). They cite several studies that conclude a link between vaccines and neurological disorders cannot be established (Offit, 2008). Such research is often disseminated by medical journals that have financial reasons to promote the views of the research sponsors. Conversely, research promoted by some autism advocacy groups presents several overlapping and interwoven theories that link vaccines to autism. Researchers suggest that live viruses and the neurotoxins mercury and aluminum in some vaccines may be associated with neurological disorders (Jepson and Johnson, 2007).
This article examines COls among people who conduct vaccine safety research as well as institutions that support the research. Using the investigation into the possible link between childhood vaccines and autism as an illustration, this article discusses the current state of vaccine safety research. Gaps in current research are discussed as well as the low level of public trust in the research. T address COls, Resnik’s (2004) framework is used to determine which conflicts to prohibit, which to manage, and which merely to disclose. The existence of C Is does not necessarily mean that the research is fraudulent or that the system that sponsors the research is wholly corrupt. To be sure: many honest and unbiased researchers are examining vaccine safety. However, COls are widespread ,and research consumers cannot know the extent of the problem. Thus, the reliability of any off the information generated is uncertain. If an unbiased researcher bases his or her work Of bias~d research, the result could be an unintentional perpetuation of the bias. Acknowledging and ameliorating the COls could lead to better and more trusted vaccine safety research.