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Friday, December 5, 2014

Pfizer Korea under probe for lobbying on cancer drug

Pfizer Korea under probe for lobbying on cancer drug

Drug firm denies no untoward intentions but review halted

By Park Si-soo 

Pfizer Korea was accused Friday of lobbying government officials to have its cancer drug covered by state health insurance.

An internal investigation into these allegations by the Health Insurance Review and Assessment Service (HIRA) is now underway.

According to HIRA, several of its commissioners received a text message from a Pfizer executive ahead of a closed-door meeting on Thursday to decide on the U.S. pharmaceutical giant's Xalkori drug. 

This was Pfizer's third attempt to win HIRA endorsement for Xalkori. A favorable decision for the company would inevitably lead to a significant sales hike for the medicine.

The message, which was seen by The Korea Times, reads, "I would like to meet you ahead of the meeting to explain Xalkori. Please make time for me."

The meeting was called off after the message was disclosed by several civic groups, calling the texts an "unjustifiable intervention."

Bae Sun-hee, a HIRA spokeswoman, said that 6 out of 19 commissioners set to take part in the meeting had received the controversial message. However, none of them actually met with the sender, she added.

Questions remain over how the Korean unit of the American multinational secured detailed information of the HIRA commissioners concerned.

The commissioners' decisions usually have a huge impact on drug companies, so personal information about them is considered confidential.

The HIRA spokeswoman said they had secretly picked 21 out of 52 designated commissioners ― mostly doctors, pharmacists, pharmaceutical professors, and related experts from the government and civic groups ― nearly two weeks ago to organize this Thursday's meeting.

"An investigation is underway as to how the secret information got to Pfizer," she said. She did rule out the possibility it was leaked by a HIRA insider.

"A full list of the commissioners was made public in December 2013 in an online news report, written based on information from the National Assembly. Therefore I assume that Pfizer collected related information based on the report," she said.

Some observers have raised the possibility that Pfizer would have secured such confidential information thanks to HIRA insiders.

"The six receivers of the message were all supposed to attend the meeting. This proves that Pfizer had detailed information about the selected commissioners," said a civic group member familiar with the case. "I think it's impossible without help of HIRA officials."

Pfizer duly released a statement on Thursday night.

"We've done nothing to press commissioners to make a decision favorable to us," Pfizer said in the statement. "Plus, we had no information about commissioners selected to attend the meeting."

The Korea Times contacted Pfizer Korea several times Friday, but the company could not be reached for comment. 

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