'How GlaxoSmithKline Took Its Medicine' by Forbes journo Matthew Herper is an interesting read. It's fairly balanced and, for once, we see a journalist not blowing smoke up the ass of GlaxoSmithKline's Chief Executive, Andrew Witty.
'How GlaxoSmithKline Took Its Medicine' sees Herper delve into Witty's time in charge of the British pharmaceutical giant, much of which has been tainted by the stench left for Witty by his predecessor, JP Garnier. Heper's peice even features some selected quotes from Witty, many of which kind of stick in my teeth, given that so many people have been harmed by his company's medicines.
Herper's post tries to show how Witty, unlike his predecessor, JP Garnier, has strived to make things better at GlaxoSmithKline since he took the hot seat off the Frenchman 8 years ago. In doing so, Herper has missed a couple of key factors that have arisen during Witty's control of GSK.
Witty seems to paint the picture that he is whiter than white with his carefully chosen quotes, one such is his apparent apology following the $3 billion fine handed down to his company when they plead guilty to a host of violations, including fraud and bribery.
Herper notes that at the time of the guilty plea Witty offered the following apology in a prepared statement. “On behalf of GSK, I want to express our regret and reiterate that we have learnt from the mistakes that were made.”
No mention of the patients harmed and killed by the drugs in question. No mention, apart from a line or so, of the sickening way in which Glaxo's reps targeted Dr's to prescribe Paxil (a drug known to induce suicidal thoughts and completion in this population) - okay, it happened on Garnier's watch but are we expected to believe that Witty knew nothing about the way in which Garnier set his stall?
No mention, either, of when Witty used to work under Garnier .
Witty's Wellbutrin Years
Between the years of 1997 and 1998 Witty was head of the Glaxo Wellcome marketing team. (1)
1997/98 is a period of time where Witty was heavily involved in marketing although there are very few articles left on the internet that show this.
Glaxo Wellcome's VP-General Manager of Marketing Andrew Witty, as he was known between 1997/98, worked very closely with prescription drug ads on TV. This is known as DTC or Direct to Consumer advertising.
In August 1997 the US Food and Drug Administration [FDA] relaxed its rules on DTC, it basically meant that the FDA were giving carte blanche to the pharmaceutical industry whereby they could promote their products in TV ads without giving detailed medical information on the indications, potential side effects, or proper use.
Witty was quick to pounce. Why wouldn't he? DTC is lucrative for the pharmaceutical industry, well, it is in America and New Zealand as these are the only two countries that allow TV ads for prescription medication.
Witty added more products in 1997 with Glaxo's new anti-smoking pill Zyban, [buproprion] which got an estimated $55 million in support (the brand even got TV teaser ads prior to its launch)
For those who don't know, Zyban is also in fact Wellbutrin which is an antidepressant that Glaxo marketed off-label for a whole host of reasons that it was never indicated for. They subsequently pleaded guilty and this plea was part of the reason why a $3 billion fine was handed down to them.
So, if Witty was Vice President of marketing for Glaxo in 1997 he, surely, would have known the ins-and outs, or Garnier's policy, on illegal marketing, right?
It emerged through the DOJ suit that Glaxo hired celebrities to promote Wellbutrin via radio shows, something Herper picks up on in his article...
"Glaxo paid Drew Pinsky, who parlayed a radio show giving teenagers sex advice into the celebrity persona of “Dr. Drew,” $275,000 for two months to talk about antidepressants and sex. Dr. Drew gave an interview where he segued from talking about a woman who said she had 60 orgasms in a row to saying how Glaxo’s Wellbutrin was better for the libido than other antidepressants. Pinsky didn’t disclose at the time that Glaxo was paying him; no charges were brought against Pinsky."
Question is, did Witty, as VP of marketing, have anything to do with payments made to Pinsky? Someone made the decision, someone signed off and agreed.
Transparency for Victims of Glaxo Products
Nothing has been mentioned about Witty's role of VP of marketing. Instead we see deflection and Witty cover himself in garlands by making claims that Glaxo have opened its doors to published and unpublished clinical trial results - good ones and bad ones. Witty fails to mention that his company were forced to do so as part of a settlement agreement. It's akin to someone on parole helping pensioners around their homes - they, the parolees, have to do it - just as Witty had to open the door of transparency into GlaxoSmithKline, even though it's only slightly open - to open it fully takes a lot of hoop jumping as the authors of the RIAT study found out when requesting information on the Paxil trial results in children and adolescents.
Witty has also been approached regarding the current UK Seroxat (Paxil) litigation where over 100 people have claimed that GSK's drug caused them severe withdrawal problems.
Back in 2011, Janice Simmons, who operates the Seroxat User Group, wrote to GSK to request a meeting with GlaxoSmithKline's CEO, Andrew Witty. To her surprise, GSK’s UK medical director Dr Pim Kon wrote back asking what she wished to discuss...adding that they cannot give advice to patients, they need to seek that from their healthcare professionals.
Janice informed Dr Kon that she wished to discuss the issue of Seroxat withdrawal. Kon wrote back telling Janice that they was not allowed to discuss personal matters with patients and that they should 'talk to their doctor'.(2)
Witty had a golden opportunity here to show his caring side, sadly, he chose not to, leaving the 100 or so in limbo, many of whom were still trying to taper off Seroxat.
Furthermore, when it was brought to Witty's attention that corruption was rife in its China operations, what did he do? Did he inform the authorities immediately or did he follow up the allegations? Well, neither, opting instead to hire a private detective (Peter Humphries) to try and find out who was making the allegations - it was only through the investigation that Witty and co, on the advice of Humphries, were told that there was a bigger problem than the anonymous whistleblower, the corruption was widespread. Only then did Witty and co come clean.
In Herper's piece Witty claims that at the time of the Chinese investigation into his company's bribery (funneled illegal payments to doctors and government officials in order to boost sales) he found it “Distressing”, adding that, “It was so counter to everything we were trying to do.”
Glaxo were subsequently fined almost $500 million after the investigation by Chinese authorities were complete. No prison sentences, apart from suspended sentences, were handed down to either Witty or the then Head of Chinese operations, Mark Reilly.
And what of the litigation brought against his company during his spell there? Okay, the litigation is a result of Glaxo's actions before Witty became Chief, but an apology would have been nice to the 800 or so women who either gave birth or aborted infants with birth defects caused by Paxil (Approx 800 cases have been settled out of court in the USA)
Witty, and GSK, are quick enough to sell their wares through Direct to Consumer ads but both are silent when it comes to making an apology to those very same consumers.
During Witty's reign its also come to light that his company played around with clinical trial results with Paxil, in as much that they hired a ghostwriter to say that the drug was safe in kids, when in actual fact it wasn't. The ghostwritten article still remains today and calls for its retraction have fallen on deaf ears. Again, Witty had a golden opportunity to show, at the very least, empathy but, for reasons unknown, he chose not to make any effort to retract the fraudulent article from the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.
Herper's article also sees Witty claim, “Honestly, I don’t regret a single decision.” Maybe not but it's the decisions that Witty never made that may just cause him a conscience in his later years as he nears a natural death from old age. After all, isn't it when we are on our death beds that we tend to repent or ask for forgiveness for the things we did, or didn't do?
Witty is set to leave GSK sometime next year. I'll leave the final words to him...
“Is everything right?” he asks. “No. Did we make mistakes? Yes. Did things go wrong? Yes. But it hasn’t put us off trying to improve. And I hope whoever takes over will continue trying to improve. Because there’s still plenty of things to keep improving.”
'How GlaxoSmithKline Took Its Medicine' can be read, in full, here.
On-going GSK v Consumer litigation regarding Paxil.
UK Seroxat Litigation (Severe Withdrawal Problems)
US Paxil Suicide Litigation
US Paxil Birth Defect Litigation
(1) GlaxoSmithKline: The Andrew Witty "Era"
(2) GSK's Andrew Witty in Patient Aftercare Snub