BRITAIN'S top drugs safety watchdog has been forced to declare an interest in one of the world's largest pesticide companies, following an investigation by the Sunday Herald.
Sir Alasdair Breckenridge, the chairman of the UK government's Medicines and Health Care products Regulatory Agency (MHRA), decided late last week to formally register his involvement with Swiss agrochemical giant, Syngenta.
This was despite previously saying that there was no need to declare his interest. He changed his mind only after responding to a series of allegations about potential conflicts of interest.
The Sunday Herald can reveal that Breckenridge has been chairman of Syngenta's ethics committee for the last five years. The committee is responsible for approving company arrangements for testing toxic pesticides on human volunteers, a controversial and secretive practice."It does not exactly inspire public confidence in the safety of medicines when the person at the top has for years been permitting the dosing of humans with toxic pesticides."
The MHRA is the agency responsible for ensuring that all the medicines and medical equipment used in Britain are safe. It grants companies licences to manufacture and distribute drugs, and inspects medical laboratories.
On Friday, an MHRA spokeswoman said: "Sir Alasdair has, until very recently, been unaware that Syngenta had proposed to become involved in the field of human pharmaceuticals.
"However, now that he has been made aware of this, his unremunerated position on the ethics committee will be declared on the agency's register of interests, in line with the MHRA staff code of conduct."
The spokeswoman pointed out that the MHRA had not so far received any licence applications from Syngenta, and that Breckenridge did not give the company any advice on human medicinal products.
"For these reasons, there is no conflict of interest between Sir Alasdair's role at the MHRA and as chair of the ethics committee at Syngenta, " she argued.
This is disputed, however, by Charles Medawar, director of the health consumer watchdog in London, Social Audit.
"There is clearly a potential conflict of interest here, " he said. "He doesn't make the distinction between being independent and being seen to be independent."
This was also not the first time that Breckenridge had been caught up in controversy about an alleged conflict of interest, Medawar said. "It is very difficult for the public to have confidence in someone in his position.Three members of the MHRA's committee on the safety of medicines - professors Chipman, Park and Griffiths - declared interests in Syngenta in 2004. Ian Kimber, head of research at Sygenta's central toxicology laboratory in Cheshire, is a member of the MHRA's committee on the safety of devices.
"The links between Syngenta and the MHRA are far too close, " said anti-pesticide campaigner, Alison Craig.
In March, the House of Commons Health Committee accused MHRA of "serious weaknesses" and urged an independent review.Read more