WASHINGTON — The director of the National Institutes of Health has decided to ban all agency employees from accepting consulting payments from drug companies for at least one year, officials said Thursday.
The move is the latest and potentially most far reaching response by NIH director Elias A. Zerhouni to revelations of multiple conflicts of interest among agency scientists.
In July, a report by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics concluded that NIH was beset by a "permissive culture" and that firm, across-the-board restrictions were needed to restore public confidence in the medical-research agency.
Zerhouni's decision was relayed late Thursday to NIH employees via a memo that was signed by directors of the agency's research institutes and centers. The memo said that Zerhouni, after his subordinates "identified vulnerabilities in our system that give us pause," wants a one-year "moratorium" on the company consulting fees.
In June, Zerhouni announced that he would ban the NIH's most senior officials -- including the institute and center directors -- from accepting fees from companies or nonprofit institutions. But at that time he opposed an agency-wide ban.
Over the past several days, Zerhouni privately informed members of Congress that he would soon seek the permission of the Office of Government Ethics to impose the broad-based moratorium, encompassing 5,000 or more NIH scientists. The NIH director is acting in coordination with senior Bush administration officials, according to his aides.
Dr. Raynard S. Kington, a deputy NIH director, said Thursday night that the one-year moratorium on payments from pharmaceutical and biotechnology companies would enable the agency to better evaluate its policies and practices.
"We've identified weaknesses in our system of oversight," Kington said in an interview. "We want to devote a lot of time to getting it right."
Pressure has been mounting for months on NIH leaders to address the conflicts of interest created by consulting payments from drug companies to agency scientists whose government decisions and pronouncements can benefit the firms.
Last December, articles published by The Los Angeles Times revealed that NIH employees had accepted hundreds of payments from biomedical companies, totaling millions of dollars, and that more than 94% of the top-paid agency employees were not filing public income-disclosure reports. The articles spotlighted payments of consulting fees and, in some instances, stock options, to high-ranking decision makers, including laboratory chiefs and institute directors.
In the immediate aftermath, Zerhouni said that he would oversee an internal investigation of information presented in the articles, but also defended the paid consulting deals, saying they generally helped move scientific discoveries more quickly from government labs into the hands of physicians.
That same month, however, the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, citing the articles in The Times, presented Zerhouni with detailed requests for documentation of the payments to NIH employees.
In January, Zerhouni announced that he would appoint a 10-member "blue ribbon" committee to evaluate NIH's conflict-of-interest policies. At the panel's first public meeting, in March, Zerhouni cautioned his appointees against blanket, "one-size-fits-all" policies. When the panel issued its report in May, it recommended what Zerhouni preferred: case-by-case reviews of proposed industry consulting deals.
Meanwhile, after months of frustration in obtaining data from NIH, the congressional subcommittee queried 20 leading drug companies for information about consulting payments made in recent years to NIH employees.
In June, the subcommittee told Zerhouni that the companies had provided details regarding more than 100 deals that were not listed as having been approved by ethics officials at NIH. This development was cited in the memo circulated throughout NIH on Thursday, announcing the moratorium.
"This action is being taken to ensure that NIH retains full public confidence in its research," said the memo, a copy of which was obtained by The Times. "Although this has been a difficult decision