February 28, 2011 1:23 am

Former EMA chief faces job scrutiny

The former head of the European Medicines Agency is coming under scrutiny by politicians and health groups over concerns that his new job may contravene European Union conflict of interest rules.

Thomas Lonngren, who stepped down in December after two terms as chief of the agency that approves medicines across the EU, has become an adviser to NDA, a consultancy that advises drug companies, as well as a non-executive director of an Australian biotech business.

In a letter to John Dalli, the European health commissioner, five Brussels-based organisations expressed concern that Mr Lonngren has taken on work for “pharmaceutical companies whose products his previous role would have evaluated and authorised” without any “cooling off” period or restrictions on his future work.

The groups called on Mr Dalli to re-examine whether conflict of interest rules had been “sufficiently and duly respected”.

The concerns – also separately raised by two European parliamentarians – follow other recent conflicts of interest debates in Brussels. Charlie McCreevy, the former internal market commissioner, was forced to step down in October as a director of NBNK Investments, and conditions were imposed on the contracts signed at his new consultancy by Günter Verheugen, the former industry commissioner.

Mr Lonngren, who has been critical of the pharmaceutical industry, played an important role in building the London-based EMA in the past decade. He was in charge of management and strategy; separate scientific committees of experts nominated directly by EU member states scrutinise new drugs and recommend their approval or rejection.

Pat O’Mahony, chairman of the agency, replied to a letter from Mr Lonngren in December notifying him of his plans, saying: “We have no objectives to these activities having regard to your assurances that they do not cause a conflict of interest nor breach the code of conduct or any other aspects of staff regulations.”

In a second letter, Mr Lonngren said he planned to “provide advice and counsel to the pharmaceutical industry, regulatory agencies, non- and governmental agencies, non-profit organisations and other consultancy companies, on management, regulatory and strategic issues”. He also said he would take non-executive positions in the pharmaceutical sector.

He had stressed: “I am very conscious of my obligations and commitments to the EMA and can assure you that in my new role there will be no conflict of interest, breach of code or conduct, nor any of my other legal contractual obligations.”

He has become a strategic adviser to NDA, which includes a number of other senior European regulators on its advisory board. It describes its role as working with the pharmaceutical industry and regulators “to help to develop better medicines that reach the patient without unnecessary delay”.

The EC has been slow to arrange a replacement for Mr Lonngren, initially seeking to downgrade the remuneration of the post and having to re-advertise for candidates after mistranslating the job requirements as seeking a qualified “physicist”. A new head is not expected to be in place before autumn.

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