Thursday, March 26, 2009

Following Up With Sid Wolfe (Part 2)

Washington is full of interesting connections.

Given how much people jump from job to job in DC, it’s only a bit of an overstatement to say that everybody has worked with everybody at some point in their careers.

So it should come as no surprise, perhaps, that Joshua Sharfstein, the incoming principal deputy commissioner of the Food & Drug Administration, used to work with a prominent policy figure in Washington who happens to be a staunch critic of the pharmaceutical industry.

No, we’re not talking about Rep. Henry Waxman, for whom Sharfstein worked early in his career. This is someone perhaps even less favorable to Big Pharma (if that could be possible): Public Citizen’s Health Research Group director Sidney Wolfe.

Sharfstein worked at Public Citizen as a researcher between April-August 1992—after completing his undergraduate degree from Harvard University and starting medical school. During his five months at Public Citizen, he contributed to a report on the capacity of the U.S. correction system’s ability to care for mentally ill. (One finding: states without adequate inpatient mental health facilities jailed mentally ill patients rather than providing appropriate treatment.)

In an interview, Wolfe recalled Sharfstein's stint at Public Citizen, but was careful not to give him too much praise. When asked of his impressions of the incoming FDA official, Wolfe spoke generally of the “extreme public health experience” of both Sharfstein and FDA commissioner-designate Margaret Hamburg. “I can’t remember the last commissioner with solid public health experience,” Wolfe said. (He discounted David Kessler, who as the former head of a hospital, Wolfe says, did not rise to the same level as health commissioner of a big city.)

After Public Citizen, Sharfstein went into his first year of medical school, and promptly did something rather Wolfeish: he led a student campaign urging his classmates to return free textbooks donated by pharmaceutical companies.

According to a story in the Harvard Crimson, Sharfstein set up a drop-box for students to return two textbooks donated by Sandoz, and wrote a letter to president Timothy Rothwell protesting their distribution. The protest didn’t seem to attract much support: few books were returned, and a few that were returned were stolen from the drop-box.

Wolfe and Sharfstein kept in touch, collaborating on a 1999 petition to then-HHS secretary Donna Shalala against Pfizer’s marketing practices for the antibiotic Zithromax. Wolfe and Sharfstein, who at the time was a pediatrics fellow at Boston Medical Center, accused Pfizer of launching a campaign to convince physicians to prescribe Zithromax over the “effective and inexpensive” antibiotic amoxicillin—against CDC guidelines.

They also testified at the same FDA public hearing in 2008 over the safety of cough and cold medicines; Sharfstein petitioned FDA to relabel the products as not safe and effective for children under six years. At the public meeting, Sharfstein was the opening presenter, and Wolfe spoke during the open public hearing portion of the meeting.

We're not saying that makes them bosom buddies, but it does make for an interesting Washington connection.


Anonymous said...

yaaaaawwwwnnnn. good thing this blog is free because if I subscribed I'd have to ask for that money-back guarantee.

Anonymous said...

Good luck, my friend. Good luck.

Anonymous said...

I understand that Josh's short term at PC had him picking up Sid's dry cleaning and lunch, and of course cleaning the bathrooms. Funny how bonds are forged.

Anonymous said...

Actually, it was already clear that Sharfstein was less of a friend to Big Pharma than his soon-to-be boss, Margaret Hamburg is. Let's hope he'll play a bigger role in pharma and biotech regulation, while she focuses on food safety!