CDC “disclaimers” hide financial conflicts of interest

If you browse website for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), you will soon find the CDC “disclosure” statement:

“CDC, our planners, content experts, and their spouses/partners wish to disclose they have no financial interests or other relationships with the manufacturers of commercial products, suppliers of commercial services, or commercial supporters. Planners have reviewed content to ensure there is no bias. CDC does not accept commercial support.”

Despite the claim that “CDC does not accept commercial support,” this agency does indeed have financial ties to industry organizations, through their government-charted foundation. Congress has created foundations for many government organizations, including the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to supplement the agencies’ funding for specific projects and encourage more public-private partnerships.

In a recently-released petition to the CDC, several watchdog groups including Public Citizen, the Project on Government Oversight, and U.S. Right to Know, are demanding that the CDC be transparent about the industry funding they receive through their foundation. 

Since the CDC Foundation was created in 1995, hundreds of corporations have contributed to public health programs, for a total of $161 million in donations. Many of these contributions could be seen as conflicts of interest–for example, a $193,000 donation from Roche, the maker of antiviral drug Tamiflu, to fund a CDC flu prevention campaign. Despite the significant funding the CDC receives from industry via its foundation, few were aware of these conflicts until Jeanne Lenzer called attention to the foundation in The BMJ a few years ago.

Recently, the CDC accepted $3.4 million from Pfizer for the prevention of Cryptococcal disease, $1 million from Merck & Co. pharmaceutical company for a program on preventing maternal mortality, and $750,000 from Biogen for a program on screening newborns for spinal muscular atrophy, the petition states

The petitioners ask that CDC should stop publishing the false disclaimers, remove the disclaimers from their website and resources, and issue corrections to retroactively disclose financial relationships with industry.

“It’s time for the CDC to be truthful with health professionals and all Americans, and to stop denying that it takes corporate money,” said Gary Ruskin, co-director of U.S. Right to Know, in STAT. “The CDC is violating the public trust by misleading us in this way.”

Disclosing these conflicts is the first step toward a clearer separation between government agencies meant to serve the public interest and industry companies. The next should be demanding that public agencies not accept any industry funding through their foundations. “The foundations exist at least in part because they allow industries to directly fund and thus control the work of agencies that are either supposed to regulate them, or conduct research that can help or hurt their business,” said Lown Institute Senior Vice President Shannon Brownlee

We need to question why these foundations exist and push for more public funding of these agencies, rather than force public health agencies to rely on industry funding for their programs and compromise their independence.