World drops type 2 polio vaccine as Nigeria reports type 2 vaccine-derived virus

A spot of bother in Maiduguri district, Nigeria (Source: Wikimedia)

Worldwide, in all but three of 155 countries, the trivalent oral polio vaccine has been replaced with bivalent oral vaccine. The bivalent formulation includes only attenuated versions of type 1 and 3 of poliovirus. The type 2 component has been dropped because, far more than the other types, it sometimes mutates back into virulent form. Also, type 2 polio was eradicated in 1999.

But just as the world moved to the bivalent vaccine, Nigeria reported finding a type 2 vaccine-derived virus in a sewage sample. Consequently, right on the heels of the vaccine switch, the type 2 vaccine is being immediately pressed back into service, although it will be used by itself, in monovalent form, according to the Global Polio Eradication Initiative.

Sequencing indicates the Nigerian virus has been circulating undetected since May of 2014. The sample comes from Maidaguri district, an area contested by government forces and Boko Horam, making vaccination problematic. 

Last September, WHO removed Nigeria from the list of polio-endemic countries. However, the CDC continued to advise that US travelers to Nigeria be immunized against polio.

Initially, the polio eradication project envisioned stamping out all type 2 vaccine-derived virus transmission before dropping the type 2 vaccine component. But plans to switch vaccines ultimately went ahead despite the likelihood of continued circulation of type 2 vaccine-derived virus somewhere in the world.

There are now multiple hotspots. Besides Nigeria, according to the CDC's Steve Wassilak, "We consider [the] Guinea and Myanmar outbreaks still active." In addition, Brazil reported what researchers described as a "highly evolved" type 2 vaccine-derived virus found in sea water off São Paulo. Found in January 2014, sequencing indicates the virus has been circulating undetected for eight years. Brazil has very high population immunity to polio, so this virus likely came from somewhere else, according to Wassilak. 

Eight years of undetected circulation suggests a perhaps large and as yet undiscovered surveillance gap somewhere in the world. Asked whether eight years set the record for undetected circulation, Wassilak answered: "Nigeria had documented circulation for 10 years." However, in Nigeria, there were multiple transmission chains, and it is not clear from Wassilak's answer if any one chain circulated eight years. The Brazilian isolate also had mutations at antigenic sites, suggesting possible evolution of resistance. However, researchers reported that type 2 antibodies still killed the virus.

The process of switching to the bivalent formulation also risks creating new type 2 vaccine derived virus. The switch was synchronized globally because if use of the trivalent vaccine continues anywhere, it might potentially infect children who have only been immunized with the bivalent vaccine. According to WHO:

"The primary risk associated with the cessation of use of type 2 OPV [oral polio vaccine] is the re-introduction of disease-causing type 2 poliovirus into a population with increasing susceptibility to type 2 poliovirus. The switch from tOPV to bOPV must therefore be globally synchronized to minimize the risk of new cVDPV type 2 emergence."

The precision of the large and un-rehearsable switch remains to be seen. Globally, susceptibility to type 2 vaccine derived virus is now rising given the switch to bivalent vaccine and the slow (and arguably belated) introduction of the injected vaccine, which includes all three virus types in a form in which mutation is not possible. Also, while the injected vaccine protects against paralysis caused by poliovirus, it does not prevent infection nor halt transmission. Polio circulated in Israel without causing any cases of paralysis because coverage with the injected vaccine was so high. Eventually, however, circulation might find someone missed by vaccination or with a compromised immune system, resulting in polio's hallmark acute flaccid paralysis.

The success in beating back wild poliovirus bodes well for the eradication effort to also smash outbreaks from vaccine-derived virus. But, out of the gate in the post-trivalent world, the race is already on. And, in Nigeria at least, type 2 vaccine-derived virus circulation has gone uninterrupted for a decade.

Why you might think like Bill Gates about global health

Video still of Bill Gates during a Washington Post interview

Perhaps you read some of the same publications as Bill Gates, like the New York Times or Slate. You tune into NPR and watch the PBS NewsHour, part of the sacred ritual of thoughtful Americans becoming informed citizens.

From Slate, we know time is running out to eliminate drug-resistant malaria. The Gates Foundation believes this too. But is the foundation’s logic irresistible or did Slate run an infomercial for the foundation funded by a $40,000 grant? The story (including a trip to Thailand) was paid for by Malaria No More which has received $20 million in Gates Foundation grants.

Media matter. As Bill Gates observed, even Theodore Roosevelt’s reform program “wasn’t really successful until journalists at McClure’s and other publications had rallied public support for change.” Now Gates has rallied public support for malaria eradication in Slate, and President Obama tentatively endorsed it in the State of the Union.

It’s not just Slate or only global health. Carefully restricted Gates Foundation grants to NPR, the PBS NewsHour, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting and other news organizations shape what gets covered, what doesn’t, when and how.

The Gates-funded PBS NewsHour just began a new series on education called “Making the Grade.” The first episode is difficult to distinguish from an earlier Gates Foundation video on postsecondary education. In the NewsHour version, Gates-funded journalists and academics deliver the messages of the foundation’s postsecondary strategy, but neither the foundation nor its funding role are mentioned. 

Trusted media organization receiving Gates Foundation grants are not following good journalistic practices. And like improper food labeling, undisclosed funding misleads news consumers about what they are actually getting.

Readers got nothing on Ebola from the Gates-funded Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting until more than half a year after the crisis broke. Pulitzer Center stories appear in an array of top-shelf outlets like the New York Times, Nature, and the Economist, where the center’s first article on Ebola eventually came out. Although restricted Gates funds paid for 59 of 240 Pulitzer Center stories over a 30-month period, neither readers nor perhaps even the editors publishing them could tell which were actually Gates-funded. 

NPR, with its Gates grant, cut staffing for covering climate change in order to expand and transform its global health coverage into an upbeat, advocacy-oriented approach, the opposite of muckraking. Gates funding of this specific initiative is not disclosed. While NPR gives the impression that the Gates Foundation just writes a check to support all of NPR’s good work, it doesn’t.

NPR’s restricted Gates grant actually requires NPR to contribute unrestricted money towards Gates-initiated projects. Ironically, listener donations might be funding broadcast of the Gates Foundation’s news values on public radio.

Which is perhaps why you think like Bill Gates when it comes to global health.

Slate: not so clean

In late December, CNN ran an op-ed advocating malaria eradication, written by the CEO of the advocacy group Malaria No More. In January, a week later, Slate too proclaimed “The World Can Eliminate Malaria.” The article delivered Malaria No More’s messages but was written by a Slate staff writer—funded by the Gates-backed Malaria No More. Jackpot: advocacy runs as news from a credible source.

Nightline veteran Dan Green orchestrates the Gates Foundation’s media and communications grant portfolio. Speaking in 2011 on the “media metamorphosis,” Green observed that with the demise of old media, many news organizations “don’t have a global health reporter anymore.” Consequently, when journalists cover global health, “they need more guidance.” For advocacy groups, according to Green, this created “an enormous opportunity for you to educate those reporters about what it is they need to be thinking about.”

The Malaria No More grant provided reporters with ample guidance:

During the tour, participants will conduct site visits to clinics and treatment centers, attend briefings with health officials and disease experts, hear from organizations working to eliminate the disease and meet with local journalists covering the issue.

In return:

Participants will be expected to produce stories based on the information gathered and contacts made during the tour.

Slate staff writer, Joshua Keating, while possessed of formidable reporting chops, focuses on international affairs and does not appear to write much about malaria for Slate. When domain expertise is short, journalists are at the mercy of their sources. When a journalist’s sources are curated by an advocacy group, the result is not journalism.

Technically, Keating’s trip wasn’t directly funded by Malaria No More. Indeed, it is unlikely Slate would have accepted money straight from an advocacy group. Instead Malaria No More funded the International Center For Journalists (ICFJ). Passing the money through ICFJ, which called the five-day trip a “fellowship,” seemed to overcome any journalistic scruple. As Slate science editor, Laura Helmuth, wrote me:

Josh Keating’s editors were all fully aware of his trip and how it was funded, and we fully support him and the reporting that came out of his trip and his story in Slate.

I asked Executive Editor Josh Levin about  Slate’s policy on accepting funding from advocacy groups. Levin did not reply.

Drug resistant malaria is undoubtedly important. But for Thailand, is it more important than dengue? Globally, multidrug-resistant tuberculosis might be far more urgent and deadly, with half a million cases a year. CDC Director Thomas Frieden believes “There can be no delay” in combating drug resistant TB. But Frieden’s views appear on the CDC blog, not in Slate. (Slate has covered the media’s neglect of TB.)

Slate’s malaria piece takes for granted that a single-disease approach to public health is best, without considering whether health systems might be more effective. In addition, current scientific evidence suggests drug-resistant malaria has not spread even within Southeast Asia and faces surprising barriers to taking over in Africa.

For malaria’s considerable importance, neither Slate nor perhaps any media outlet has written about why Rollback Malaria, the global consortium responsible for combatting malaria, disbanded itself in 2015.

For its grant to Slate, Malaria No More got a narrowly focused piece getting out its key messages. Indeed there were four other ICFJ fellowships, so Slate participated in an orchestrated news boomlet. ICFJ would not disclose the names of the other publications, so the impact (and degree of funding disclosure) are untrackable.

The over $200,000 spent on these trips could go a long way towards putting a journalist on the global health beat. But who needs global health reporters if it’s possible to generate “news” that faithfully delivers an advocacy message?

Structural changes in the news industry have made this easier. Said the foundation’s Dan Green, back in 2011: “You have now media organizations that are far more open to innovative partnerships.” Why? Because “their resources are stretched.” As revenue streams for traditional media dried up, enter the world’s wealthiest foundation as innovative partner.

Promise to say you’re independent

With much solemnity, the foundation and its media partners proclaim the full editorial independence of Gates grantees. But Green acknowledged a “fear” felt by Gates-supported news organizations:

...that fear that as my grant ends, will I get renewed and will any foundation funder, or any outside philanthropic funder, say, ‘Hmm. I looked at the stories and they weren’t all that positive, and they weren’t filled with success. Maybe we don’t want to fund that anymore.’

Green insisted it would be short-sighted for funders to take such an approach. And yet the Gates Foundation seeks demonstrable results, according to Green: “We as funders try to think in terms of outcomes. What would be the outcomes we’re hoping for by telling these stories, by engaging with the content creator?”

The foundation engages with content creators not to give readers a puzzle to solve thoughtfully but to deliver pre-specified, actionable messages. “We really think a lot about ‘Is it reaching an audience that we think is an important audience we need to reach?’ ” Green opined in 2013.  “And, if it is, does it have the credibility and the trust so when it puts out evidence-based information that people say, ‘I believe that. I’ll follow what that says?’ ”

Wearing his journalist hat, Green said, “Now you come from journalism and we don’t sit around talking about messaging. Messaging makes us cringe. Because then it makes us feel that you’re using all the journalists as tools for your messages.” Green concluded, forthrightly: “You might say, ‘Yeah, we are.’ ”

Green defended using journalists as tools because “it’s a mistake to think that if your subject that you care about is getting talked about, and stories are being told and information is out there, that is incredibly valuable.” Journalists get to cover global health; the price is carrying the foundation’s messages. It’s painting by numbers, but it’s still painting.

The dissolution of traditional media, according to Green, brought fragmentation and proliferation of information outlets, and created a news environment with fewer facts and more opinions. Some digital media consultants, said Green, recommended that “the louder and stronger your opinion is, sometimes the more people gravitate to you…” However, even Theodore Roosevelt’s  bully pulpit did not suffice to create change. Regarding the loud opinion strategy, Green said “I’m not a huge fan of that necessarily.” Far better that the foundation’s opinions appear as news.

Like Slate’s malaria piece.

The Pulitzer Center—presented by the Gates Foundation

The Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting frowns on free trips. Pulitzer Center-funded articles appear in elite publications like the New Yorker, Nature, the Economist, the Washington Post, Slate, Foreign Policy, National Geographic etc.

But regarding trips, the Pulitzer Center’s ethics policy says journalists “should not normally accept free travel, with the exception of military embeds and other situations in which travel assistance is essential to the reporting.” To further protect its integrity, the center counsels writers to “avoid activities that might interfere with your ability to function as a journalist.” Otherwise, “you may be precluded from working on certain topics for the Pulitzer Center if you're personally involved.”

Although the center closely polices the integrity of worker bee journalists, different standards apply to donors. Many donors write a check with no strings attached, leaving the Pulitzer Center with full editorial discretion. “In recent years,” said Executive Director, Jon Sawyer, “we have consistently gotten 50 percent or more of our budget from unrestricted donations…”

However, the other 50 percent of donations have strings, although the center’s ethics policy seems to guard against any improper influence. The policy asserts: “Donors will not dictate in any way the editorial products of the Pulitzer Center.” But restricted donors, like the Gates Foundation, restrict their grants because they do not believe the Pulitzer Center would, by itself, create the desired editorial products. Influencing the Pulitzer Center’s editorial products is the only reason restrictions exist.

“Over a four-year period our Gates funding has totaled approximately $2.4 million,” said Sawyer. “These were restricted grants but the terms were broad, with funding for a broad range of global health/development topics and educational outreach and full autonomy as to the selection of specific projects, news-media placements and outreach activities.” But the center’s “full autonomy” is over selecting specific projects. The Gates Foundation draws the big picture and contracts out for the needed words and images.

Recall that the Pulitzer Center will disqualify journalists from writing on subjects in which they are personally involved. To guard against donor bias, the center’s ethics policy asserts: “We do not accept donations that raise the possibility, or the appearance, of a conflict of interest.” However, the center’s Gates funding, at minimum, creates the possibility of a conflict. The Gates Foundation is the largest in the world. Most of its donations go to global health and development, the same subjects funded by its grants to the Pulitzer Center. The foundation, far from being policy-agnostic, funds research into policy and advocates for specific approaches to global public health.

This possible conflict of interest is not disclosed to readers nor perhaps even to editors of the publications running stories from the Pulitzer Center. Slate at least disclosed the funding of its story on malaria. Slate didn’t just name the funding intermediary, the International Center for Journalists, it named (sort of) the funder, Malaria No More. Anyone wanting to dig further could discover the Gates Foundation’s $20 million funding of Malaria No More, which advocates for the foundation’s malaria policy, eradication, set by the foundation in 2007.

The Pulitzer Center, with its Gates funding, produced a substantial amount of global health coverage. Over the 30 months of its most recent Gates grant, “we applied Gates funds to support a total of 59 projects,” said Sawyer. “For purposes of comparison, over that same 30 month period we supported some 240 projects overall.” These stories ran with the disclosure of funding provided by the Pulitzer Center. However, one in four is actually the Pulitzer Center presented by the Gates Foundation.

Which 59 projects were Gates funded? Sawyer would not say. He previously mentioned “On some of those [Gates] projects we also drew on funds from other donors.” He emphasized the point: “Also, as point of clarification, our grants to journalists often mix restricted/unrestricted funds.” Sawyer perhaps was suggesting that mixed funding mitigates conflicts of interest. The idea might be that if funding from interested donors passes through intermediaries who stir in some amount of disinterested money, then journalism is not compromised and disclosure is unnecessary.

From the Gates Foundation perspective, however, adding unrestricted funds to those of its restricted grant leverages the foundation’s investment. (It’s possible the grant stipulated that the Pulitzer Center contribute additional funds.) The restricted Gates grant shifted Pulitzer Center resources to more closely match the news values of the Gates Foundation. Maybe not by much; maybe a lot.

Initially, Sawyer wrote me: “Happy to discuss this further. Complicated numbers and we're eager to have it reported accurately.” But when I asked for a spreadsheet listing Gates-funded projects and the funding mix for each, Sawyer did not reply.

Sawyer defended the center’s work: “I hope you'll take the time to read some of the reporting,” he wrote me. “It's quite good!” Read the stories; don’t ask where they came from. But Sawyer is right about quality: the center’s production values are top-shelf, and the finely wrought stories bring attention to a broad array of important but neglected subjects. Slate’s article on the neglect of TB, for example, was supported by the Pulitzer Center. Nonetheless, reporting loses the name of journalism when it comes from restricted funding.

The Pulitzer Center website quotes Joseph Pulitzer: “We will illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.” But Sawyer shed very little light on funding of stories bearing Pulitzer’s name. “Ebola, malaria and other health projects relied in part on Gates, in part on other funding sources,” he said, perhaps again suggesting that mixed funding ameliorated conflicts of interest not disclosed by the Pulitzer Center.

It is true that finding such conflicts is much harder when 59 restricted projects are mixed with 201 that are not. However, in a far from exhaustive search, I came across a speech in which Bill Gates advocated an intervention called seasonal malaria chemoprevention. Later, there is Pulitzer Center article about it, indeed a multi-article project on the subject. Whatever the merits of seasonal malaria chemoprevention, there is no way to determine if its coverage was funded by an interested party.

The Pulitzer Center tells its reporters: “Let the audience know any information about yourself or your sources that might affect its understanding of your work.” Brick-laying journalists are closely scrutinized but the audience has no idea even of the existence of restricted donors shaping the overall news architecture.

The void: Why no Ebola coverage for half a year?

If Gates Foundation influence on malaria, for example, is worrisome, evidence on Pulitzer Center coverage of Ebola raises far more serious concerns: The Pulitzer Center supported no stories on Ebola for more than half a year.

The outbreak began in March of 2014 but no Pulitzer Center stories appeared on Ebola until mid-December. The center’s full name is the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting, and Ebola is the most important global health crisis since HIV/AIDS. Although funded by the Gates Foundation to cover global health, the Pulitzer Center produced nothing on Ebola for the better part of a year.

I conducted my search for “Ebola” articles using the center’s website. (I asked Jon Sawyer for confirmation of my results. He did not reply.) The first article I found is dated December 13, 2014, “The Fight Against Ebola: Donating the Cure,” appearing in the Economist.

According to Sawyer, the Pulitzer Center received what he described as an “extension” grant of $300,000 from the Gates Foundation. It is possible that the timing of the grant coincides with the onset of Pulitzer Center stories about Ebola.

In difficult to parse grammar, Sawyer said: “Gates extension was continuation of previous grant, support for reporting/outreach on broad range of global health/development issues: choice of projects, journalists and outlets left to us.”

Unsure whether that meant “no,” the extension grant did not fund the center’s Ebola coverage, I asked Sawyer again, several times, if the grant was to cover Ebola. I sought details on timing and who approached whom. Sawyer did not reply.

When I inquired of the Gates Foundation’s Bryan Callahan whether the extension grant was for Ebola, he did not reply. Callahan is the foundation’s Senior Program Officer for Program Advocacy & Communications.

Back in 2011, the foundation’s Dan Green, claimed: “We want people to say ‘We get our money from the Gates Foundation.’ ” Later, writing on the foundation’s blog, Green put transparency first among the guiding principles for media grants. Green also promised “in the coming weeks I’ll post another blog listing all of our current investments in this portfolio.” I asked Green for the listing of the foundation’s current media grants. He did not reply.

I asked Amy Maxmen, who wrote stories on Ebola for the Pulitzer Center, whether she knew if her efforts had been Gates funded. “I don't know where the Pulitzer Center gets their funding,” answered Maxmen, without saying yes or no. “I admit I don't ask.”

Maxmen did assert: “I independently came up with the idea for my reporting on Ebola.” However, Maxmen thinks a lot like the Gates Foundation.

The Pulitzer Center’s Ebola project is entitled “Disaster Science During the Ebola Outbreak.”  The center took care to explain this odd-seeming focus: “Research during a disaster can seem frivolous when there aren’t enough resources to handle the immediate response. But in the Ebola outbreak it's become clear that data collection must happen now.” The Pulitzer Center had ignored Ebola for more than half a year and now focused not on an Ebola response but Ebola research—rather like the Gates Foundation.

Had Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) been the funder of the Pulitzer Center’s Ebola coverage, the stories would likely have come sooner, indeed immediately, and with a different emphasis: the need to act.

In contrast to MSF, the Gates Foundation remained silent on Ebola for months until moments before WHO’s belated declaration of an emergency. Barely beating WHO to the punch, the foundation announced an Austin Powers-sized $1 million dollar grant to “help address the immediate need on the ground.” One day after its token grant, the foundation blogged that meningitis, “could end up being far more destructive than the current Ebola epidemic.” Remarkably, the foundation moved on from Ebola before WHO even declared it to be an emergency.

The crisis worsened. As it reached increasingly apocalyptic scale and the world belatedly mobilized billions of dollars, the foundation chipped in $50 million. The announcement committed $10 million to “emergency operations” but also to “R&D assessments.” For the remaining $40 million, “the foundation will provide further details on its funding commitments to on-the-ground operations and to research and development for Ebola drugs, vaccines, and diagnostics.” The foundation was not going to fund the operational response costing billions but research costing millions. The Pulitzer Center’s Ebola coverage, when it finally came, also focused on research.

The center’s Ebola coverage can be seen as favorable to the Gates Foundation which funded the stories, at least in part. Maxmen’s first article, for example, appearing in the Economist, focused on the silver bullet of blood transfusions potentially curing Ebola. It turned out not to work, and new research contributed little to containing the epidemic. However, one of Maxmen’s stories, appearing in Newsweek, criticized the Ebola response as wastefully managed. Undoubtedly. But the foundation had mostly not contributed to on-the-ground efforts which, in the end, worked. 

In the pages of Nature, Maxmen reminded readers of the importance of malaria and that Ebola was disrupting mass administration of anti-malarial drugs.

Another Maxmen piece provided a reporter's timeline of the world's “plodding attack on Ebola.” It pummeled bureaucratic organizations “bogged down in democratic decision-making processes and bureaucratic policies,” perhaps meaning the World Health Organization. The timeline doesn’t mention the inaction of the Gates Foundation. Nor does the article examine the role of the CDC, which only declared Ebola a top-level emergency one day before WHO.

Latest of all, however, was the Gates-funded Pulitzer Center.

The Economist: “We do not publish articles 'supported' by any organisation”

Maxmen's article in the Economist runs without disclosure of Pulitzer Center funding. I asked Economist science editor, Geoffrey Carr, whether the Pulitzer Center disclosed to the Economist any funding of its work by the Gates Foundation.

Carr replied: “We do not publish articles 'supported' by any organisation, and we certainly do not publish anything funded by anyone.” The Economist is journalism at its purest, or at least proudest.

I pointed out that the Ebola story appearing on the Pulitzer Center site was identical to the one appearing in the Economist. (The Pulitzer Center lists 25 articles and 1 photo as published by the Economist.)

Carr changed tunes: He described Maxmen as “a freelance who seems to have some sort of travel and support grant from the Pulitzer Centre.” Carr added: “I don't see any impropriety in this, since we pay our freelances a market rate for their copy.” 

The Economist  does publish articles supported by other organizations, but without disclosing that support to its readers. (In this regard, the Economist is perhaps the perfect vehicle for maximally credible stories with undisclosed conflicts of interest.) Regarding the question of whether any Gates funding of the Ebola article was disclosed to the Economist, Carr wrote: “I will pass your thoughts on to the Editor of the Middle East and Africa section, whose section this story appeared in.”

NPR: Gates and Soda

Think of your brain as a pie chart, the slices representing the subjects you pay attention to, and the size of the slice indicating how much. If NPR programming influences your pie chart, then your slice on climate change might have shrunk like a receding glacier.

In 2014, NPR cut its environment team to one reporter, according to Inside Climate News, with resources reassigned to “the outlet’s global health and development coverage, which includes a new project launched this summer using a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.”

NPR will not say how much of that project, called Goats and Soda, is Gates-funded. One report said it would “likely not exist” absent Gates funding. But NPR’s Isabel Lara said: “Goats and Soda is possible in large part due to the Gates Foundation grant but it isn't accurate to say that it wouldn't exist otherwise.” Lara is NPR’s Media Relations Director. When asked for details, Lara would only repeat the amount and duration of the grant. “Cannot get more specific than that,” Lara said.

The Gates Foundation’s funding relationship with NPR goes back 15 years. Its most recent grant in 2013 provided $4.5 million to “advance global health and development coverage.”

The Gates initiatives at NPR, however, are not 100%-funded by the foundation. According to Lara: “As is common with many foundation grant agreements, our Gates agreement references NPR’s proposed budget for the initiative which included other resources beyond their investment.” More plainly, the Gates grant requires NPR to help fund the foundation’s projects.

I asked Lara if the “other resources” contributed by NPR included listener donations. She did not reply. However, as at the Pulitzer Center, a restricted Gates grant might be drawing unrestricted funds into the support of the foundation’s news values. Conceivably, listeners are funding NPR’s Gates-designed presentation of global health news.

NPR does not disclose Gates Foundation support for Goats and Soda on its website except, it seems, when Gates or his foundation are the subject. A commentary applauding BIll Gates’ views on solar power, for example, parenthetically disclosed: “As our readers may know, the Gates Foundation is a funder of NPR.” But readers of the laudatory piece on Bill Gates do not know that the Goats and Soda enterprise is mainly and specifically funded by Bill Gates.

Goats and Soda might even be preferentially covering its funder. I asked the author of the commentary, Michael Hayden, if he approached Goats and Soda or vice versa, but he would not say. “Sorry,” Hayden wrote back, “what are you trying to do exactly?”

Unlike NPR’s Goats and Soda, the Guardian puts the Gates Foundation’s logo on all the pages appearing in its Gates-funded development section. Guardian readers do not have to guess what is Gates-funded and what is not. Whether foundation influence extends beyond what it pays for is another question. But a dedicated page describes the funding relationship including the declaration that “content is editorially independent.”

I wrote to Goats and Soda editor, Vikki Valentine, asking whether Gates funding was properly disclosed. Valentine did not reply.

Solutions journalism: turn that frown upside down

Goats and Soda represents not just a switch in coverage from climate to global health. The news production line now turns out a very different editorial product based on a new template, solutions journalism.

In 2012, the Gates Foundation issued a challenge to “find ground-breaking ways to gather and share stories of aid working well.” In the foundation’s view, “The media seems full of stories of corruption, waste and broken systems.”

Responding to the challenge, New York Times writer David Bornstein and colleagues won an initial $100,000 grant from the foundation for an idea called “solutions journalism.” As Bornstein explained:

So much of what we do as journalists is aimed at holding powerful people accountable and identifying failure, which is very important and valuable. But if we stop there, with just identifying failures and the bad actors, it becomes frustrating to people. It’s a broken narrative.

The foundation has supported Bornstein’s efforts with a further $1 million.

Solutions journalism, according to Bornstein, “has more in common with a Harry Potter novel, a quest or struggle, than the traditional journalism narrative.” Harry Potter, of course, is fiction.

Traditional journalists on the global health beat, like Tom Paulson, questioned the solutions emphasis: “A number of journalists, including me, remain concerned that making reporters responsible for emphasizing solutions – along with this Gates push for ‘success stories’ – could undermine basic watch-dogging.”

Paulson leaned toward what he called “cranky” stories. The blog Paulson edits, Humanosphere, ran a story entitled “How Tanzania failed to fix its water access problem.” The piece delivers a very cranky, evidence-based beatdown of the World Bank. The story held powerful people accountable and identified failure. The story was not solutions journalism.

By contrast, a Goats and Soda article on water featured a solution: Bill Gates drinking water “made from poop.” The Gates-funded piece stars Gates and promotes a Gates-funded project. The article’s solutions journalism style, favored and funded by the Gates Foundation, leaves readers with gee whiz wonderment, a sense that there’s an app for the water crisis.

Although the water-from-waste system appears to be the size of small refinery, the story does not delve into what it costs to construct or operate. The price of a gallon of water and whether the system works where there is no sewage system or electricity are not addressed. Broken narratives about the water crisis, however, are avoided.

Change the perception, change the reality

Sally Struthers, circa 1992, told television viewers: “Every year, 10 million third world children don’t live to see their third birthday.” Ten million avoidable child deaths, said Struthers—and that’s on you, viewer. Look: tiny bodies, bloated bellies, skeletal ribs, eyes outlined in flies.

Global Health, 1992 Source: YouTube

Today, moralizing and macabre messages are out. Even the news category “global health” has been left behind. NPR buried its old Twitter handle @nprglobalhealth, pointing followers instead to the new @nprgoatsandsoda. In place of 1990s-era, grim scenes of despair, a Goats and Soda music video shows the modern day “bliss” of living in low-income rural India.

Goats and Soda, 2015

Source: NPR Goats and Soda

Struther’s moral importuning came in television commercials clearly paid for by the Christian Children's Fund. By contrast, what Goats and Soda presents appears as NPR-certified reality, a perception unspoiled by disclosure of Gates Foundation funding.

Very few Struthers-like sermons have appeared in Goats and Soda. Indeed, a story about ethics and the making of blue jeans argued against moralizing. The piece concluded with a quotation from a researcher: “To get people to be more ethical, do not ever present your message as, 'If you're not doing this, you're a bad person...'”

And instead of counting dead children, today we count those who have been saved. Said Melinda Gates at Davos recently, “When we look at the fact that since 2000, childhood deaths have been cut in half, a big percentage of that is because of vaccines.” Quite reasonably, Melinda describes the glass as half full. And the world is doing great on vaccinating children, right?

Omission of bad news is bad journalism—or worse

There is one hiccup: measles vaccination is “falling behind,” according to a story in Goats and Soda. Not to worry, though. Annual measles deaths have fallen from 546,800 to 114,900 since 2000. That’s fantastic—except measles progress actually flattened back in 2007. The good news stopped eight years ago but is still being reported.

More than just measles vaccination is falling behind. Of six targets set in 2010 for global child vaccination, “Just one of these six is on track to be achieved,” according to a report from WHO’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts (SAGE).  At Davos, Melinda Gates chose to speak about the one target that was on track: introduction of new vaccines.

Goats and Soda’s measles story promised to explain “why the world is falling behind,” but did not. Solutions journalism style, however, it covered “new strategies that seem promising” and “other success stories from the front lines.”

By contrast, SAGE explained what had actually gone wrong:

The targets each relate to different vaccines and diseases, but common threads run throughout: failure to extend vaccination services to people who cannot currently access them at all, and failure to strengthen the healthcare system so that all doses of vaccine are reliably provided.

In addition, the total number of unvaccinated children had “basically not changed” and those at greatest risk became more vulnerable: “Looking closer, the number in the lowest bands is getting worse not better,” SAGE reported. However, few or no journalists explored the halt in progress and backslide in immunizing the world's children. How this failure is possible and who is responsible is not a solutions journalism story. Adding to the broken narrative, SAGE wrote: “The habit of missing major vaccination targets undermines global trust in these efforts…” Global trust, however, remains high because no one reads SAGE reports.

In 2000, Gates Foundation mistrust of vaccination efforts led it to create the Gavi Alliance which now runs the world’s child immunization program. Gavi doesn’t keep track of how many children die for lack of vaccination. (This might be like the Department of Labor not counting the number of unemployed.) Instead, Gavi touts “Another record-breaking year in terms of the number of [vaccine] launches,” the same message emphasized by Melinda Gates. 

These introductions, according to Gavi, “made a major contribution to the unprecedented rate of reduction in under five mortality.” Similarly, Melinda Gates said at Davos: “they are getting the vaccines out now very quickly, and that's how we're saving lives.” Readers might conclude that Gavi and the Gates Foundation have been driving down child mortality more quickly than at any time in history. It's a good story, but it isn't true.

The Gates-funded Center for Global Development reported that new vaccine introductions have made no detectable difference in saving lives, finding only “small and statistically insignificant effects for the three high-priced vaccines promoted by Gavi...”

Vaccine coverage, not introductions, is what saves lives. And according to SAGE, immunization coverage has recently shown “no improvement,” leaving the number of unvaccinated children at 22 million. Children that aren’t vaccinated can and do die from preventable disease in large numbers. “1.5 million children die every year of diseases that could be readily prevented by vaccines that already exist,” SAGE reported, based on a 2008 WHO estimate.

Not a problem for solutions journalism.

PBS NewsHour: copying the Gates Foundation's homework

The Gates and MacArthur foundations both support the PBS NewsHour. Although frequently credited together, this is misleading. The two foundations hold very different, indeed opposing worldviews.

Gates grants are, once more, restricted. A $3.6 million grant to the NewsHour in 2008 supported only global health coverage. A current Gates grant directs $320,000 toward stories that “inform the public” about higher education issues. This media spend hits its mark. 

In January, the NewsHour began a new series called “Making the Grade.” The first episode delivered the same messages on higher education as a Gates Foundation video appearing back in November.

The foundation’s video carried forward messages from an earlier blog entry from Bill Gates, who wrote: “The problem is that not enough people are finishing [college]. More than 36 million Americans—a fifth of the working age population—have gone off to college and left without a degree.” The NewsHour segment described the same problem: “nearly 40 percent of those who go to four-year colleges and some 70 percent of students at community college will never earn their degree.”

Given this problem, the question and title of the NewsHour segment was: “Should more kids skip college for workforce training?”

No one from the Gates Foundation appeared in the NewsHour segment. Their parts were taken by people funded by the Gates Foundation. The NewsHour introduced series host, John Tulenko, as a “special correspondent from Education Week.” Education Week’s parent company has received $12.6 million in Gates Foundation funding. Before joining Education Week, Tulenko worked at Learning Matters, recipient of $1 million in Gates grants.

Tulenko interviewed Anthony Carnevale, head of Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW) and recipient of $9.7 million in Gates grants. CEW’s postsecondary policy appeared as early as 2012 in a Gates-funded report. CEW’s research informs the Gates Foundation’s current postsecondary strategy. It also appeared in Bill Gate’s blog, in the foundation’s video on postsecondary success, and most recently on the Gates-funded PBS NewsHour.

Tulenko also interviewed Michael Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, recipient of $7.8 million in Gates funding. Petrilli, Carnevale and the Gates Foundation argue that too many students go to college and amass debt only to drop out. The solution they propose is that students at risk of dropping out receive advice to consider vocational education instead of going to college.

The only person on the show opposed to re-directing students toward job skills programs was Carol Burris. Burris worried that such career advice would be based on stereotypes, especially racial stereotypes. Of the three academics interviewed, Burris was the only one not funded by the Gates Foundation.

For journalism, however, the question is not whether the Gates Foundation’s postsecondary policy should be followed or not. The issue is that the PBS NewsHour ran a story as news that is not distinguishable from the advocacy of a funder.

The Gates Foundation’s role as funder in the story also was not visible to viewers. The credits for the segment stated that principal support came from the Noyce Foundation. The Noyce Foundation is defunct. And although NewsHour spokesperson Nick Masella said “NewsHour's education funders are listed on our education web page,” the Noyce Foundation is not among them.

I asked Masella why the NewsHour used a “special correspondent” rather than a NewsHour correspondent and whether Education Week contributed funding. Masella did not reply. Similarly, Masella would not say whether its Gates Foundation grant supported the segment, only that: “The PBS NewsHour credits the Gates Foundation every night on our broadcast, as we do with other foundations, in accordance with PBS's funding standards.” 

But the NewsHour gives viewers the impression that the Gates Foundation supports all the NewsHour's good work, when actually Gates money funds stories only on education, stories which do not disclose this restricted funding. By contrast, when the NewsHour covers, for example, rail issues, it clearly states that it receives funding from BNSF. 

More in line with the impression PBS gives to viewers, the MacArthur Foundation does support all the NewsHour's good work. MacArthur's  $1.5 million grant is not restricted. Although MacArthur does issue some restricted journalism grants, according to Kathy Im, MacArthur’s Director of Journalism and Media: “When we have a well-established relationship with a grantee and have confidence in their editorial vision and dissemination strategies, we tend to provide unrestricted support in order to provide maximum flexibility to the organization and its leadership.”

Gates Foundation v. the People of the United States

MacArthur supports journalism in the public interest; the Gates Foundation supports journalism in support of its policy interests. The MacArthur Foundation believes in open society principles; Bill Gates believes institutions of civil society are iffy: “The closer you get to it and see how the sausage is made, the more you go, oh my God!” Gates told the Financial Times. He wondered whether in American democracy, “can complex, technocratically deep things – like running a healthcare system properly in the US in terms of impact and cost – can that get done?”

Imagine, continued Gates, “the idea that all these people are going to vote and have an opinion about subjects that are increasingly complex... Do democracies faced with these current problems do these things well?” Perhaps if they are shown how by their betters.

Whether foundations “do” global health better than democracies and the institutions of civil society is a question that is not asked. Instead of holding the Gates Foundation accountable, a number of influential journalists at trusted news organizations write to foundation storylines and pay down their mortgages with foundation funding.

Muckrakers might have called this corruption. At the Gates Foundation, it’s philanthropy.


Article History
14 February: Section with quotations from Economist science editor Geoffrey Carr added

Gavi CEO: Lazard and Gavi Board Chair Positions not a Conflict of Interest

Gavi Board Chair Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and Gavi CEO Seth Berkley (Photo credits: Gavi, Wikimedia Commons)

"I do not see any conflict of interest." - Seth Berkley

Gavi's new board chair, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, simultaneously joined the sovereignty practice at Lazard, an investment bank which Bloomberg has described as "banker to the broke." A number of Gavi-supported countries are Lazard clients. Also, Gavi-eligible countries might consider retaining Lazard to enhance their prospects for Gavi funding. 

[See previous article, "Gavi Board Chair-elect Joins Lazard's Sovereignty Practice the Same Day."]

However, Gavi CEO, Seth Berkley, said: "I do not see any conflict of interest." Continued Berkeley: "Many of our Board members have other jobs and board positions and we are very careful to monitor any potential conflict of interest issues." As a sign of the legitimacy of the arrangement, Berkley said "the announcement of her work with Lazard and Gavi were coordinated by the communication team and announced the same day." Previously, Gavi spokesperson Rob Kelly denied such coordination of the announcement. Kelly also said Gavi had not facilitated Okonjo-Iweala's employment arrangement with Lazard.

As board chair of Gavi, Okonjo-Iweala will oversee and have signing authority on Gavi grants. Gavi recently raised $7.5 billion dollars to fund vaccine grants over the next four years. 

Although Gavi board members do indeed have other jobs, I asked Berkley;

Is it not the case that, as Gavi board chair, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala will have a hand in distributing several billion dollars to finance ministries while, on  the other hand, as part of Lazard, Okonjo-Iweala will be receiving money from finance ministries?

Berkley did not reply.

The Gavi board, which elected Okonjo-Iweala unanimously, appears to have been unaware of her arrangement with Lazard. According to Berkley, "The Board delegated responsibility for due diligence to the Board-appointed Recruitment Committee." I asked Gavi board member Zulfiqar Buttha if the board knew of the Lazard affiliiation when the board elected Okonjo-Iweala. He wrote back: "No."

None of the Gavi board members I emailed responded regarding whether joint Gavi-Lazard positions represented a conflict of interest. I emailed:

  1. Flavia Bustreo, WHO (Assistant Director-General)
  2. Zulfiqar Buttha, Unaffilliated
  3. Tim Evans, World Bank (Director)
  4. Geeta Rao Gupta, Unicef (Deputy Executive Director)
  5. Orin Levine, Gates Foundation (Director)
  6. Katie Taylor, United States (Deputy , USAID)
Orin Levine, Gates Foundation representative to Gavi (Photo: Gates Foundation)

Gavi originated from a Gates Foundation grant. It is not clear if the foundation had foreknowledge of Okonjo-Iweala's appointment. Neither the foundation nor Seth Berkley answered inquiries on this point.

Okonjo-Iweala's election appears to violate Gavi statutes and bylaws

In addition to conflict of interest problems, the election of Okonjo-Iweala appears to violate Gavi statutes and bylaws. Article 12 says: 

"Board members will select the Chair and a Vice Chair of the Board from among their own voting members..."

The Gavi bylaws appear to reinforce the statutes. Section 2.6 says:

"The Chair and Vice Chair will be selected according to Article 12 of the Statutes from among voting Board Members (not Alternate Board Members)."

Okonjo-Iweala was not a Gavi board member. Perhaps to circumvent Gavi statutes, Okonjo-Iweala was both named to the board and elected board chair at the September 2015 board meeting. By contrast, outgoing board chair, Dagfinn Høybråten, previously served on Gavi's board before becoming chair. 

I asked Seth Berkley if Okonjo-Iweala's election violated Gavi statutes. He did not reply.

Alleged disappearance of Nigerian oil money; Gavi investigation of Nigeria

Okonjo-Iweala is widely known as an anti-corruption crusader. However, the former finance minister of Nigeria has been caught up in allegations that Nigerian oil revenues were improperly diverted. Investigations continue. The newly-elected president of Nigeria, Muhammadu Buhari, recently said, "We have some documents where Nigerian crude oil was lifted illegally and the proceeds were put into some personal accounts instead of the federal government accounts." One estimate put the amount of fraud at $20 billion dollars. A former oil minister is being investigated and others might be named.

In theory, Gavi is still investigating misuse of Gavi funds distributed to Nigeria while Okonjo-Iweala was Finance Minister. A 2014 audit recommended that the Economic and Financial Crimes Commission carry out "a thorough and detailed investigation of the Gavi grants disbursed to Nigeria." In addition, the audit sought "a full-scale audit to cover both select, high-risk expenditures in prior years, and other expenditure from the period 2011-2013" not examined in the course of the 2014 audit.  

It is difficult to see how Gavi could pursue or cooperate fully with any investigation of wrongdoing that might involve its board chair. I emailed Simon Lamb, Gavi's Managing Director, Audit and Investigations, and asked if Gavi was following through on the 2014 audit recommendations. He did not reply.

Correct or Retract Ross et al. Reviews of HER2 as Prognostic in Breast Cancer

Problems with 30 of 107 papers reviewed

Three reviews of HER2 as a prognostic factor in breast cancer have been published by The Oncologist, in 19982003, and 2009.

In the 1998 paper, 10 of the 47 studies were mishandled; correcting the errors overturned the review's conclusion that HER2 is independently prognostic. 

The error rate increased in subsequent reviews. The 2003 update added 34 more papers and 10 new errors. The most recent review, published in 2009, added 26 papers and 10 more new errors. 

All told, in the 2009 review, of the 107 papers reviewed, a total of 30 (28%) are either miscoded or should not have been included:

  • 10 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'No'
  •  7 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'NA' 
  • 11 papers should not have been included 
  •  2 papers coded 'No' for multivariate significance should be 'Yes' 

Appendix A below defines what constitutes an error. Appendix A also enumerates and explains the 30 errors contained in the 2009 review.

Stuffing the ballot box

The 11 papers which should not have been included accounted for 7,511 (19%) of the 39,730 patients in the 2009 review. Of the 7,511, the review reported 7,213 supported HER2 as independently prognostic. A single paper, Lal et al. (2005) contributed 3,655 patients to the review, more than twice as many as the next largest study. Like nine of the 11 erroneously included papers, Lal et al. examined the correlation of HER2 with other biomarkers, not HER2 and clinical outcomes.

First author acknowledges possibility of errors, disputes none of them

Jeffrey Ross, the first author on all three reviews, acknowledged the first two might contain errors. Regarding the 1998 review, Ross wrote in email: "It is certainly possible that the studies you have cited were not perfectly listed in my manuscript from so many years ago.” 

With respect to the 2003 review, Ross wrote: "I have no reason to believe that your conclusions are not correct and that there were scattered errors in the meta-analysis of the published literature in our 2003 manuscript."

However, contacted regarding the most recent, 2009 paper, Ross wrote: "Due to time constraints, I am unable at this time to either agree or disagree with your analysis..." In PubMed, the 2009 review is cited 133 times.

No response from The Oncologist

According to the Committee on Publication Ethics (COPE) guidelines, journal editors should consider issuing a correction if "a small portion of an otherwise reliable publication proves to be misleading (especially because of honest error)." 

Three emails documenting possible issues in the Ross et al. reviews, sent to Martin Murphy, executive editor at The Oncologist, have not been answered. The Oncologist is a member of COPE.

Appendix A

Papers counted as representing an error were either miscoded or inappropriately included. Note the 2009 review includes all the papers and errors contained in the 1998 and 2003 reviews.

Miscoding

This examination focuses solely on the reporting of HER2 having independent prognostic value in a multivariate analysis. The reviews misclassified the findings of 19 papers. 

Perhaps most remarkably, seven of the 19 did not report performing a multivariate analysis of HER2 as a prognostic factor. 

Ten papers did perform such an analysis but found HER2 did not predict clinical outcomes although the reviews categorized the 10 as finding HER2 to be independently prognostic. 

Two studies were reported as finding HER2 not prognostic when the papers did find it prognostic. Strangely, one of these false negatives was a paper co-authored by Jeffrey Ross, i.e. he seems to have miscoded one of his own papers.

Inappropriate Inclusion

The three reviews mostly examined papers that included some clinical outcome, such as disease free survival, in HER2 positive and HER2 negative patients. However, particularly in the 2009 review, studies of HER2 were reviewed that did not include any clinical outcome. Of 11 papers that should not have been included, nine correlated HER2 with other biomarkers, not clinical outcomes. 

Inclusion of one the 11 papers, Wright et al., resulted in a double-counting (in Gullick et al.) of a single cohort. 

In the last of the 11, Sandri et al., the paper examined HER2 in serum whereas the other studies in the review were of HER2 overexpression or amplification in tumor cells. The review's conclusions are only for overexpression and/or amplification. 

Enumeration of Errors

Numbers correspond to the study number from Table 1 of the 2009 review.

2. Berger et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Correlation of c-erbB-2 Gene Amplification and Protein Expression in Human Breast Carcinoma with Nodal Status and Nuclear Grading."

4. Wright et al.: Yes to Exclude

One of three studies incorporated in Gullick et al. (1991), also in the review. As a result, the same 185 patients are counted twice. 

9. Battifora et al.: Yes to No

The paper reports: "Stepwise Cox Regression: This analysis identified independent prognostic factors of DFS and OS when all variables were considered together. Independent predictors of DFS included stage of disease, histology, and nuclear grade. Nuclear grade and stage were the only significant predictors of OS."

13. Lovekin et al.: Yes to No

The paper reports: “Multivariate analysis (Cox, 1972) was used to identify whether c-erbB-2 was of independent prognostic significance. In the context of the temporal variables, tumour size and lymph node stage, cell membrane staining was found to have independent significance as a prognostic factor but significance was lost when histological grade was included in the analysis."

15. Dykins et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

19. Paterson et al.: Yes to No

The paper does not state HER2 is independently prognostic in a multivariate analysis or provide the statistics relevant to such a statement. The authors do suggest possible confounding of prognostic factors: “our study design precluded direct determination of the interrelationships of c-erbB-2 [HER2] amplification with conventional disease parameters.”

21. Molina et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

28. Press et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

30. Descotes et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: “Correlation study between Her-2/neu amplification and prognostic factors.”

33. Têtu et al.: Yes to No

The paper reports that HER2 was predictive of treatment resistance: “The difference in survival rates between cases was only significant among patients submitted to adjuvant chemotherapy or hormone therapy."

46. Charpin et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

54. Scorilas et al.: No to Yes

Tables 2 and 3 show HER2 overexpression prognostic in multivariate analyses of early relapse and overall survival.

59. Agrup et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

67. Jukkola et al.: Yes to No

The abstract reports: "In multivariate regression analysis, only tumour size and nodal involvement were risk factors for poor survival when analysed separately together with c-erbB-2 and receptor status..." 

Section 3.2 states: "In multivariate Cox stepwise regression analysis, tumour size and nodal involvement emerged as independent prognostic factors when analysed separately in combination c-erbB-2, indicating a 2.9 (90% CI 1.9-4.4) risk of death in node-positive patients. For patients with tumour sizes T3 or T4 the risk of death was 2.7 (90% CI 1.4-5.1) and 4.8 (90% CI 2.5-9.5), respectively, c-erbB-2 status did not reach significance in this model, nor when analysed in combination with tumour size, nodal involvement and receptors."

69. Rudolph et al.: Yes to No

HER2 only emerges as prognostic if CR is removed: "When all variables that attained statistical significance in the univariate analysis were included in the multivariate model, the CR was the first and most significant independent indicator of both AOS and DFS (P  .0001; Table 3). Next to CR, only PR status was found to be an independent prognostic factor, albeit of borderline significance."

71. Pinto et al.: Yes to No

HER2 is not independently prognostic: "C-erbB-2 is an independent prognostic indicator when evaluated in conjunction with ploidy and SPF." 

73. Horita et al.: Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

74. Suo et al.: Yes to No

HER2 is only prognostic when combined with EGFR or HER4. See Table 5. 

76. Rosenthal et al.: No to Yes

A paper on which Ross is senior author found "Multivariate analysis of the combined LN+ and LN− lobular and ductal cases revealed that HER-2/neu amplification (P   0.002), pathologic stage (P < 0.0001), and node positivity (P < 0.0001) were all independent predictors of disease-related death."

78. Spizzo et al.: Yes to No

The paper states: "Multivariate analysis for DROS revealed that nodal status, EpCAM overexpression, tumor size and histological grade were significant prognostic factors. Hormone receptor expression and Her-2/neu overexpression were not significant predictors of DROS. For DFS, nodal status, Ep-CAM overexpression, tumor size and progesterone receptor expression were significant prognostic factors. Her-2/neu overexpression, histologic grade and estrogen receptor expression had no prognostic value for disease-free survival (Table III)."

81. Taucher et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes.

84. Lal et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Correlation of HER-2 Status With Estrogen and Progesterone Receptors and Histologic Features in 3,655 Invasive Breast Carcinomas"

85. Huang et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Association between tumour characteristics and HER-2/neu by immunohistochemistry in 1362 women with primary operable breast cancer"

87. Ariga et al.: Yes to Exclude 

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Correlation of Her-2/neu Gene Amplification with Other Prognostic and Predictive Factors in Female Breast Carcinoma"

89. Prati et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Histopathologic Characteristics Predicting HER-2/neu Amplification in Breast Cancer"

90. Tanner et al.:Yes to NA

The study does not include a multivariate analysis of HER2 as an independent prognostic factor. In the paper's only multivariate analysis, all the patients were HER2+: 

91. Diallo et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes.

99. Sandri et al. Yes to Exclude

Examines HER2 in serum, as the title suggests: "Serum EGFR and serum HER-2/neu are useful predictive and prognostic markers in metastatic breast cancer patients treated with metronomic chemotherapy"

101. Sunami et al.: Yes to Exclude

Correlates HER2 with other biomarkers not clinical outcomes, as the title suggests: "Estrogen receptor and HER2/neu status affect epigenetic differences of tumor-related genes in primary breast tumors"

106. Ludovini et al.: Yes to No

Found HER2 by IHC and FISH significant in univariate analysis. But only serum HER2 was found prognostic in the multivariate analysis. (See table 5.) 

More Review Errors Shrink Evidence Base for HER2 Prognostic Role

HER2 is widely, even universally recognized as prognostic of adverse clinical outcomes in breast cancer. However, two review papers supporting this belief contain a remarkable number of errors, raising the question of what evidence now supports a prognostic role for HER2.

Correcting the errors in a 1998 review of 47 studies by Jeffrey Ross and Jonathan Fletcher overturns the review's conclusion that HER2 is independently prognostic. Ross did not dispute the corrections.

The 47 papers and the errors of the 1998 review are included in a 2003 update from Ross et al. The 2003 edition adds 34 more papers and introduces 10 new errors. All told, the 2003 review examined 81 papers and erred on 20. 

I previously documented the mistakes of the 1998 review. There were nine coding errors and two papers that should not have been included in the review. (One of the two papers was also miscoded, but I only count the paper mistaken once, making for 10 total errors rather than 11.)

The 2003 review adds the following 10 new errors:

  • 5 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'No'
  • 2 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'NA' 
  • 1 paper should not have been included 
  • 2 papers coded 'No' for multivariate significance should be 'Yes' 

The basis for these conclusions are found in Appendix I below.

Contacted regarding these errors, first author Jeffrey Ross replied that because he was traveling, he didn't "have complete access to review your findings." But, continued Ross: "I have no reason to believe that your conclusions are not correct and that there were scattered errors in the meta-analysis of the published literature in our 2003 manuscript."

The scope and scale of the errors might make both papers candidates for correction or retraction. The Oncologist published both. Executive Editor Martin Murphy did not reply to an email regarding problems with the 1998 review.

------------------

Appendix I

5 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'No'

1) Jukkola et al. (2001)

The abstract reports: "In multivariate regression analysis, only tumour size and nodal involvement were risk factors for poor survival when analysed separately together with c-erbB-2 and receptor status..." 

Section 3.2 states: "In multivariate Cox stepwise regression analsis, tumour size and nodal involvement emerged as independent prognostic factors when analysed separately in combination c-erbB-2, indicating a 2.9 (90% CI 1.9-4.4) risk of death in node-positive patients. For patients with tumour sizes T3 or T4 the risk of death was 2.7 (90% CI 1.4-5.1) and 4.8 (90% CI 2.5-9.5), respectively, c-erbB-2 status did not reach significance in this model, nor when analysed in combination with tumour size, nodal involvement and receptors."

2) Rudolph et al. (2001)

HER2 only emerges as prognostic if CR is removed: "When all variables that attained statistical significance in the univariate analysis were included in the multivariate model, the CR was the first and most significant independent indicator of both AOS and DFS (P  .0001; Table 3). Next to CR, only PR status was found to be an independent prognostic factor, albeit of borderline significance."

3) Pinto et al. (2001)

HER2 is not independently prognostic: "C-erbB-2 is an independent prognostic indicator when evaluated in conjunction with ploidy and SPF." 

4) Suo et al. (2002)

HER2 is only prognostic when combined with EGFR or HER4. See Table 5. 

5) Spizzo et al. (2002)

The paper states: "Multivariate analysis for DROS revealed that nodal status, EpCAM overexpression, tumor size and histological grade were significant prognostic factors. Hormone receptor expression and Her-2/neu overexpression were not significant predictors of DROS. For DFS, nodal status, Ep-CAM overexpression, tumor size and progesterone receptor expression were significant prognostic factors. Her-2/neu overexpression, histologic grade and estrogen receptor expression had no prognostic value for disease-free survival (Table III)."

2 papers coded 'Yes' for multivariate significance should be 'NA' 

1) Agrup et al. (2000)

No multivariate analysis

2) Horita et al. (2001)

No multivariate analysis

1 paper should not have been included 

Wright et al. (1989) is one of three studies incorporated in Gullick et al. (1991) with the result that the same 185 patients are counted twice. 

2 papers coded 'No' for multivariate significance should be 'Yes' 

1) Scorilas et al. (1999) 

Tables 2 and 3 show HER2 overexpression prognostic in multivariate analyses of early relapse and overall survival.

2) Rosenthal et al. (2002) 

A paper on which Ross is senior author found "Multivariate analysis of the combined LN+ and LN− lobular and ductal cases revealed that HER-2/neu amplification (P   0.002), pathologic stage (P < 0.0001), and node positivity (P < 0.0001) were all independent predictors of disease-related death."

Gavi Board Chair-elect Joins Lazard's Sovereignty Practice the Same Day

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Chair-elect of the Gavi Board (Photo credit: Gavi)

Gavi, the public-private partnership in charge of global immunization efforts, recently announced the unanimous approval of Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala as board chair-elect. The same day, Lazard announced that Okonjo-Iweala, the former finance minister of Nigeria, had joined its sovereignty practice. Recent Lazard clients have included countries receiving Gavi funding, potentially creating a conflict of interest. 

In January, Gavi raised $7.5 billion to be disbursed to developing countries from 2016 through 2020.

Gavi knew of Okonjo-Iweala's Lazard appointment and believes it will not pose a problem. According to Gavi spokesperson, Rob Kelly: "Financial oversight of programmes [is] the responsibility of the Gavi CEO and is managed on a day-to-day basis through teams within the Gavi Secretariat." Potential conflicts of interest, Kelly argues, won't compromise decisions about money because of how Gavi is structured. However, the CEO reports to the board which has ultimate financial oversight of Gavi. The board chaired by Okonjo-Iweala is Gavi's "supreme governing body," according to its statutes.

Lazard’s sovereignty clients include Gavi grant recipients such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mauritania, Nicaragua and Ukraine, according to recent regulatory filings. Retaining Lazard, so-called “Banker to the Broke,” might be seen by all Gavi-eligible countries as a way to, for example, win larger grants. Also, Gavi eligibility and criteria for graduating from Gavi support have less obvious but still significant financial implications for many countries in the world. A country paying Lazard might lead directly or indirectly to a financial benefit to Okonjo-Iweala who, at least according to Gavi statutes, exerts considerable influence on Gavi decisions having financial consequences for countries seeking or receiving Gavi support.

In addition, Nigeria was found by Gavi to have misused vaccine grant money while Okonjo-Iweala was finance minister. After a 2014 audit, Gavi demanded repayment of $2.2 million, a figure which may understate the extent of fraud. As much as 87% of the amount audited might have been skimmed off. Okonjo-Iweala's signature, along with that of the health minister, is on Nigeria's status reports to Gavi for 2011, 2012 and 2013, the years examined by the Gavi audit. Gavi has announced a more far-reaching audit and requested that Nigeria conduct a criminal investigation. Okonjo-Iweala might play multiple, conflicting roles in these investigations.

Okonjo-Iweala is also embroiled in an alleged missing $20 billion in missing Nigerian oil revenue. According to Rob Kelly, Gavi was aware of the matter and Okonjo-Iweala "was selected following an intensive and competitive search, which included a thorough due diligence process." Okonjo-Iweala has a reputation as an anti-corruption crusader. In 2012, she published a book on her experience entitled "Reforming the Unreformable: Lessons from Nigeria."

Nigeria has one of the worst immunization systems in the world which Kelly said "didn’t play a role" in Okonjo-Iweala's selection to Gavi board chair. Nigeria's system is so weak that it is difficult to ascertain immunization rates. According to Gavi, Nigeria reported 70% coverage for 2014, but a 2013 house-to-house survey found only 38% of children immunized. 

Prior to the founding of Gavi in 2000, WHO and UNICEF ran global immunization. Gavi originated partly in reaction to the perception that WHO had been debilitated by politically and financially motivated appointments and staffing decisions. In contrast to WHO processes, the most recent selection of Gavi's CEO and board chairs have been tightly controlled. 

The current CEO, Seth Berkeley, won unanimous approval from the board on March 8, 2011. His nomination by the Governance Committee came earlier the same day, again unanimously. Board minutes record one member mentioning that this “short turnaround time” meant there was little opportunity to consult with board constituencies. Both meetings were by teleconference.

Berkeley's selection was actually the work of a four-person subcommittee. Donor nations, who provide most Gavi funding, were placed in a "reference group" outside the four-person subcommittee with actual authority to choose a CEO. The countries Gavi is supposed to serve appear to have had no involvement in selecting the CEO: “Developing country voices need to be part of this process," noted Gavi meeting minutes, "however no volunteers from this constituency emerged." And although Gavi has board seats for developing countries, Gavi chooses who will "represent" those countries. WHO and UNICEF get only 2/3 of a seat each, squeezing in with the World Bank to share two seats total, the same number held by the vaccine industry.

Selection of the last two Gavi board chairs followed a ramrod process similar to the 2010 CEO decision. The Governance Committee appointed a smaller subcommittee. In both 2010 and 2015, this group was chaired by George Wellde Jr., a former partner at Goldman Sachs, and one of nine "unaffiliated individuals" on Gavi's 28-member board. Wellde's subcommittee proposed Ngozi Okonjo-Iwealaa as nominee to the Governance Committee which approved the choice on September 17. The board unanimously approved her selection the next day, September 18th, according to Gavi's Rob Kelly.

The simultaneous announcements about Okonjo-Iweala raises the question of whether Lazard and Gavi coordinated their timing. Gavi has not yet said if the coordination extended to helping facilitate Okonjo-Iweala's joining Lazard. [Update 10/20/2015: Gavi's Rob Kelly says Gavi did not coordinate announcement timing with Lazard nor did Gavi facilitate Okonjo-Iweala's position at Lazard.] 

The Gates Foundation, which started Gavi, and the US representative to Gavi, USAID's Katie Taylor, had not responded to requests for comment by publication time.  

Prognostic Findings for HER2 in Breast Cancer not Reproducible

That HER2 is prognostic of outcome in breast cancer is unquestioned. As Jeffrey Ross at Albany Medical College put it: “Today, no one I know doubts in any way that, in the absence of anti-HER2 therapy, HER2+ breast cancer is an unfavorable subtype and HER2+ status by IHC or FISH is a significant and independent prognostic factor.”

Ross helped shape HER2’s reputation as a particularly aggressive form of breast cancer. In 1998, Ross and co-author Jonathan Fletcher published a review of 47 studies of HER2. Each study was checked for an “impact” on prognosis, either univariate or multivariate. (Appendix C lists the 47 studies.)

Univariate findings can be misleading, often losing significance when multiple factors are taken into account. Regarding the more robust multivariate analyses, Ross and Fletcher reported that 28 (60%) of 47 studies found multivariate impact. The remaining 40% of studies either found no multivariate impact or didn’t conduct a multivariate analysis.

Counted by cases, 10,142 (67%) patients out of 15,248 were in studies found by Ross and Fletcher to have a multivariate impact. Their review concludes: “The preponderance of evidence indicates that HER- 2/neu gene amplification and protein overexpression are associated with an adverse outcome in breast cancer.”

However, the review’s conclusion depends on miscategorizing 9 of the 47 papers examined. Correctly categorizing these 9 studies to reflect their actual findings overturns the conclusion that HER2 is prognostic. The preponderance of evidence is inverted and points to no adverse outcome from HER2 (Table 1). Similarly, the number of cases supporting a prognostic value for HER2 fall from two thirds to less than half (Table 2).

Table 1: Number of studies finding HER2 independently prognostic in multivariate analysis

Table 2: Number of cases in studies finding HER2 independently prognostic in multivariate analysis

Appendix A lists the 9 studies and justification for each recoding.

Ross did not dispute the recodings. Provided with the information in Appendix A and asked if he agreed with the recoding, Ross replied: “I am traveling in Europe and have limited time to review. It is certainly possible that the studies you have cited were not perfectly listed in my manuscript from so many years ago.”

Ross and Fletcher’s review suffers from multiple shortcomings. (Appendix B enumerates important but secondary flaws.) However, the miscoding of papers in Ross and Fletcher’s review is sufficient to overturn the paper’s conclusion.

Conflicts of interest

Investigations of HER2 as a prognostic factor produced contradictory findings and argument—resolved by Ross and Fletcher. Of note, commercial interests played a role in several of the studies they reviewed and the review itself.

Among the 47 papers examined, four [4, 10, 29, 48] list at least one author with a corporate rather than academic affiliation. One abstract [49] includes an author who was then a director of diagnostics at Oncor, maker of a HER2 test. All five studies reported HER2 as prognostic.

In their review, Ross and Fletcher report being consultants for Oncor. However, according to Bloomberg, Ross was Medical Director at Oncor beginning in late 1995 and later Chief Medical Officer when his review with Fletcher was published in 1998. Ross confirmed the accuracy of Bloomberg’s information. The FDA rejected Oncor’s test in 1995 but, as reported in the New York Times, Oncor won approval in 1998.

Conclusion

It is likely true, as Ross stated, that today no one questions that HER2 is prognostic in breast cancer. However, this supreme confidence needs to be recalibrated.

Appendix A: Recoded papers

Of the 47 studies, the nine below were recoded:

[11] (Battifora et al.): Yes to No

The paper reports: "Stepwise Cox Regression: This analysis identified independent prognostic factors of DFS and OS when all variables were considered together. Independent predictors of DFS included stage of disease, histology, and nuclear grade. Nuclear grade and stage were the only significant predictors of OS."

[14] (Lovekin et al.): Yes to No

The paper reports: “Multivariate analysis (Cox, 1972) was used to identify whether c-erbB-2 was of independent prognostic significance. In the context of the temporal variables, tumour size and lymph node stage, cell membrane staining was found to have independent significance as a prognostic factor but significance was lost when histological grade was included in the analysis."

[16] (Dykins et al.): Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

[20] (Paterson et al.): Yes to No

The paper does not state HER2 is independently prognostic in a multivariate analysis or provide the statistics relevant to such a statement. The authors do suggest possible confounding of prognostic factors: “our study design precluded direct determination of the interrelationships of c-erbB-2 [HER2] amplification with conventional disease parameters.”

[22] (Molina et al.): Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

[29] (Press et al.): Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

[31] (Descotes et al.): Yes to NA

As its title states, the paper is a “correlation study between Her-2/neu amplification and prognostic factors.” No disease outcome data are included in the paper.

[34] (Têtu et al.): Yes to No

The paper reports that HER2 was predictive of treatment resistance, not prognostic: “The difference in survival rates between cases was only significant among patients submitted to adjuvant chemotherapy or hormone therapy."

[47] (Charpin et al.): Yes to NA

No multivariate analysis

Appendix B: Additional methodology issues

Inclusion criteria

How the 47 papers reviewed by Ross and Fletcher were selected is not described. In email, Ross wrote that “if you just limit the publications cited to those finding HER2 positive rates between 10 and 30% the prognostic impact of HER2+ status in the pre-anti-HER2 targeted therapy era was profound.”

However the review includes Dittadi et al. [44] which describes a “high risk” group comprising 44% of all cases, well above 30%. Ross and Fletcher count the study as supporting the independent, multivariate prognostic impact of HER2.

Berger et al. [5] and Descotes et al. [31] only examine correlations between biomarkers not with disease outcomes and should not have been included.

Ross and Fletcher included two studies [42, 49] for which there are only abstracts. More generally, the studies included were not graded for quality.

An unknown number of papers were omitted, potentially introducing a selection bias. An omitted paper from Zhou et al. (1989), for example, found no prognostic value for HER2. On the other hand, Wright et al.  (1989) also was not included but found HER2 independently prognostic. Other possible biases in the literature, against publishing, for example, are not examined.

Reviews frequently require a minimum number of cases for a study to be included. Indeed, a number of the papers reviewed by Ross and Fletcher attribute the conflicting results in HER2 studies in part to studies with small numbers of cases.

One study [43] had 37 cases. Ross and Fletcher record it as finding HER2 prognostic in univariate analysis but the paper contains no p values, perhaps because n is so small. O’Malley et al. [41] does not state the number of HER2 positive cases that provided the basis for the conclusion that HER2 was prognostic in multivariate regressions. (The corresponding author did not reply to an email inquiry.)

A 2002 review of prognostic factors in node-negative breast cancer specified inclusion criteria and set a minimum number of cases (200). The paper concluded HER2 is not prognostic.

No quantification of prognostic influence

Ross and Fletcher do not provide summary statistics based on a pooling of results. Heterogeneity of the study designs perhaps made this difficult or impossible. However, if heterogeneity prevented statistical summarization, that would be an important finding to report.

The review includes a table of 18 prognostic factors in breast cancer but makes no comparison of their relative strength and clinical value. The prognostic value of HER2 varied widely. In [18], the p value rested at precisely 0.05. Nodal status and tumor size were vastly more prognostic: p < 0.0001 and p = 0.003 respectively. Quénel et al. [39] found HER2 weakly prognostic: "in our hands, c-erbB2 [HER2] had a poor prognostic value in comparison with the classical prognostic variables…” However, whether such weak prognostic value is general among the papers finding HER2 prognostic is not examined by Ross and Fletcher.

Differences in treatment of cases occur within and between studies but the paper does not control for confounding of prognosis with predicting resistance to treatment.

HER2 positive undefined

Different studies used different definitions of HER2 positive. Even today, the definition of HER2 positive and the search for the best HER2 assay continue to be active areas of study. Ross and Fletcher identify the different assays used in HER2 determination (e.g. IHC, FISH) but cut points are not extracted.

Three studies [4, 20, 30] found amplification of HER2 prognostic. But each used a different cut off for gene copy number: six, three, and seven respectively. A single threshold would likely change the findings of these studies and affect the count of studies finding HER2 prognostic.

Some papers determined cutoffs and comparison groups based on achieving statistical significance. One study [44] found HER2 prognostic by creating a “high risk” group that combined cases with the lowest and the highest expression of p185. The low expression group had the worst outcome. Dittadi et al. go on to conclude p185 was independently prognostic in a multivariate analysis. Slamon et al. [4] simply dropped 23 cases with 2-5 copies of HER2. This remarkably unscientific omission enabled comparing a group with one copy of HER2 to those with six or more, providing the basis for the claim HER2 was independently prognostic in a multivariate analysis.

Negative findings not counted, contradictory findings are

Studies with even a single positive finding were counted by Ross and Fletcher as evidence supporting HER2 as a prognostic factor. The number of negative findings is not reported. For example, O’Reilly et al. [19] found HER2 prognostic for relapse-free survival but not overall survival in node-positive disease. Ross and Fletcher count [19] as one of 28 papers supporting the finding that HER2 is prognostic.

Quénel et al. [39], conducted multivariate analyses for three clinical outcomes for three groups. Among the nine tests in total, HER2 showed prognostic value in two and no prognostic value in seven. Ross and Fletcher count [39] among the papers showing that HER2 is prognostic.

Ross and Fletcher’s design also allows studies with opposing findings to be counted as finding HER2 prognostic.  For example Gusterson et al.  [27] found HER2 prognostic in node-positive but not node-negatives patients. However, Giai et al. [32] found the opposite. The papers contradict each other but both are counted as showing HER2 is prognostic by Ross and Fletcher.

Appendix C: Citations for the 47 studies reviewed by Ross and Fletcher

Footnote numbers are those used by Ross and Fletcher. The same numbers are used throughout this article.

4 Slamon DJ, Clark GM, Wong SG et al. Human breast cancer: correlation of relapse and survival with amplification of the Her-2/neu oncogene. Science 1987;235:177-182.

5 Berger MS, Locher GW, Saurer S et al. Correlation of c-erb B2 gene amplification and protein expression in human breast carcinoma with nodal status and nuclear grading. Cancer Res 1988;48:1238-1243.

6 van de Vivjer MJ, Peterse JL, Mooi WJ et al. Neu-protein overexpression in breast cancer. N Engl J Med 1988;319:1239-1245.

7 Heintz NH, Leslie KO, Rogers LA et al. Amplification of the c-erb B-2 oncogene in prognosis of breast adenocarcinoma. Arch Pathol Lab Med 1990;114:160-163.

8 Tsuda H, Hirohashi S, Shimosato Y et al. Correlation between histologic grade of malignancy and copy number of c-erbB-2 gene in breast carcinoma. A retrospective analysis of 176 cases. Cancer 1990; 65:1794-1800.

9 Borg A, Tandon AK, Sigurdsson H et al. HER-2/neu amplification predicts poor survival in node-positive breast cancer. Cancer Res 1990;50:4332-4337.

10 Paik S, Hazan R, Fisher ER et al. Pathologic findings from the nations’ surgical adjuvant breast and bowel project: prognostic significance of erb B2 protein overexpression in primary breast cancer. J Clin Oncol 1990;8:103-112.

11 Battifora H, Gaffey M, Esteban J et al. Immunohistochemical assay of neu/c-erb B-2 oncogene product in paraffin-embedded tissues in early breast cancer: Retrospective follow-up study of 245 stage I and II cases. Modern Pathol 1991;4:466-474.

12 Kallioniemi OP, Holli K, Visakorpi T et al. Association of Cerb B2 protein over-expression with high rate of cell proliferation, increased risk of visceral metastasis and poor long-term survival in breast cancer. Int J Cancer 1991;49:650-655.

13 Clark GM, McGuire WL. Follow-up study of HER-2/neu amplification in primary breast cancer. Cancer Res 1991;51:944-948.

14 Lovekin C, Ellis IO, Locker A et al. C-erb B2 oncoprotein expression in primary and advanced breast cancer. Br J Cancer 1991;63:439-443.

15 McCann AH, DeDervan TA, O’Regan M et al. Prognostic significance of C-erb B2 and estrogen receptor status in human breast cancer. Cancer Res 1991;51:3296-3303.

16 Dykins R, Corbett IP, Henry J et al. Long term survival in breast cancer related to overexpression of the C-erb B2 oncoprotein: an immunohistochemical study using monoclonal antibody NCL-CB11. J Pathol 1991;163:105-110.

17 Rilke F, Colnaghi MI, Cascinelli N et al. Prognostic significance of HER-2/neu expression in breast cancer and its relationship to other prognostic factors. Int J Cancer 1991;49:44-49.

18 Winstanley J, Cooke T, Murray GD et al. The long term prognostic significance of C-erb B2 in primary breast cancer. Br J Cancer 1991;63:447-450.

19 O’Reilly SM, Barnes DM, Camplejohn RS et al. The relationship between C-erb B2 expression, and s-phase fraction in prognosis in breast cancer. Br J Cancer 1991;63:444-446.

20 Paterson MC, Dietrich KD, Danyluk J et al. Correlation between C-erb B2 amplification and risk of recurrent disease in node-negative breast cancer. Cancer Res 1991;51:556-567.

21 Toikkanen S, Helin H, Isola J et al. Prognostic significance of Her-2 oncoprotein expression in breast cancer: a 30-year follow up. J Clin Oncol 1992;10:1044-1048.

22 Molina R, Ciocca DR, Candon AK et al. Expression of HER-2/neu oncoprotein in breast cancer: a comparison of immunohistochemical and western blot techniques. Anticancer Res 1992;12:1965-1991.

23 Noguchi M, Koyasaki M, Ohta N et al. c-erb B-2 oncoprotein expression versus internal mammary lymph node metastases as additional prognostic factors in patients with axillary lymph node-positive breast cancer. Cancer 1992;69:2953-2960.

24 Allred DC, Clark GM, Tandon AK et al. HER-2/neu nodenegative breast cancer: prognostic significance of overexpression influenced by the presence of in-situ carcinoma. J Clin Oncol 1992;10:599-605.

25 Babiak J, Hugh J, Poppeme S. Significance of c-erb B-2 amplification in DNA aneuploidy. Analysis in 78 patients with node-negative breast cancer. Cancer 1992;70:770-776.

26 Tiwari RK, Borgen PI, Wong GY et al. HER-2/neu amplification and overexpression in primary human breast cancer is associated with early metastasis. Anticancer Res 1992;12:419-426.

27 Gusterson BA, Gelber RD, Goldhirsch A et al. Prognostic importance of C-erb B2 expression in breast cancer. J Clin Oncol 1992;10:1049-1056.

28 Bianchi S, Paglierani M, Zampi G et al. Prognostic significance of C-erb B2 expression in node negative breast cancer. Br J Cancer 1993;67:625-629.

29 Press MF, Pike MC, Chazin VR et al. Her-2/neu expression in node-negative breast cancer: direct tissue quantification by computerized image analysis and association of overexpression with increased risk of recurrent disease. Cancer Res 1993;53:4960-4970.

30 Seshadri R, Firgaira FA, Horsfall DJ et al. Clinical significance of Her-2/neu oncogene amplification in primary breast cancer. J Clin Oncol 1993;11:1936-1942.

31 Descotes F, Pavy J-J, Adessi GL. Human breast cancer: correlation study between Her-2/neu amplification and prognostic factors in an unselected population. Anticancer Res 1993;13:119-124.

32 Giai M, Roagna R, Ponzone R et al. Prognostic and predictive relevance of C-erb B2 and ras expression in node-positive and negative breast cancer. Anticancer Res 1994;14:1441-1450.

33 Muss HB, Thor AD, Berry DA et al. Cerb-B2 expression and response to adjuvant therapy in women with node-positive early breast cancer. N Engl J Med 1994;330:1260-1266.

34 Têtu B, Brisson J. Prognostic significance of Her-2/neu oncogene expression in node-positive breast cancer. The influence of the pattern of immunostaining and adjuvant therapy. Cancer 1994;73:2359-2365.

35 Hartmann LC, Ingle JN, Wold LE et al. Prognostic value of CerbB2 overexpression in axillary lymph node-positive breast cancer. Results from a randomized adjuvant treatment protocol. Cancer 1994;74:2956-2963.

36 Jacquemier J, Penault-Llorca P, Viens P et al. Breast cancer response to adjuvant chemotherapy in correlation with erb B2 and p53 expression. Anticancer Res 1994;14:2773-2778.

37 Marks JR, Humphrey PA, Wu K at al. Overexpression of p53 and Her-2/neu proteins as prognostic markers in early stage breast cancer. Ann Surg 1994;219:332-341.

38 Rosen PP, Lesser ML, Arroyo CD et al. Immunohistochemical detection of Her-2/neu expression in patients with axillary lymph node-negative breast carcinoma. A study of epidemiologic risk factors, histologic features and prognosis. Cancer 1995;75:1320-1326.

39 Quénel N, Wafflart J, Bonichon F et al. The prognostic value of c-erbB2 in primary breast carcinomas: a study on 942 cases. Breast Cancer Res Treat 1995;35:283-291.

40 Sundblad AS, Pellicer EM, Ricci L. Carcinoembryonic expression in stages I and II breast cancer; its relationship with clinicopathologic factors. Hum Pathol 1996;27:297-300.

41 O’Malley FP, Saad Z, Kerkvliet N et al. The predictive power of semiquantitative immunohistochemical assessment of p53 and C-erbB2 in lymph node-negative breast cancer. Hum Pathol 1996;27:955-963.

42 Hieken TJ, Mehta RR, Shilkaitis A et al. Her-2/neu and p53 expression in breast cancer: valid prognostic markers when assessed by direct immunoassay, but not by immunochemistry. Proc Annu Meet Am Soc Clin Oncol 1996;15:113a.

43 Xing W-R, Gilchrist KW, Harris CP et al. FISH detection of HER-2/neu oncogene amplification in early onset breast cancer. Breast Cancer Res Treat 1996;39:203-212.

44 Dittadi R, Brazzale A, Pappagallo G et al. ErbB2 assay in breast cancer: possibly improved clinical information using a quantitative method. Anticancer Res 1997;17:1245-1247.

45 Fernandez-Acenero MJ, Farina Gonzalez J, Arangoncillo Ballesteros P. Immunohistochemical expression of p53 and c-erbB-2 in breast carcinoma: relation with epidemiologic factors, histologic features and prognosis. Gen Diagn Pathol 1997;142:289-296.

46 Eissa S, Khalifa A, el-Gharib A et al. Multivariate analysis of DNA ploidy, p53, c-erbB-2 proteins, EGFR, and steroid hormone receptors for short-term prognosis in breast cancer. Anticancer Res 1997;17:3091-3097.

47 Charpin C, Garcia S, Bouvier C et al. c-erbB-2 oncoprotein detected by automated quantitative immunocytochemistry in breast carcinomas correlates with patients’ overall and disease-free survival. Br J Cancer 1997;75:1667-1673.

48 Press MJ, Bernstein L, Thomas PA et al. Her-2/neu gene amplification characterized by fluorescence in situ hybridization: poor prognosis in node-negative breast carcinomas. J Clin Oncol 1997;15:2894-2904.

49 Ross JS, Muraca PJ, Jaffe D et al. Multivariate analysis of prognostic factors in lymph node negative breast cancer. Mod Pathol 1998;11:26a.

50 Depowski PL, Brien TP, Sheehan CE et al. Prognostic significance of p34cdc2 cyclin dependent kinase and MIB1 overexpression, and HER-2/neu gene amplification detected by fluorescence in-situ hybridization in breast cancer. Mod Pathol 1998;11:18A. 

Academia and advocacy conflict on economics of malaria eradication

[Please see the clarification at the end of this article.]

Don’t ask where the numbers came from, but beating malaria is a great way to make $4 trillion dollars.

In July, the Rollback Malaria initiative rolled out its “exceptional case” for investment in eliminating malaria, a plan promising a 40:1 return on investment (ROI), rising to 60:1 in sub-Saharan Africa.  Malaria elimination will purportedly bring a multi-trillion dollar windfall: $700 billion within a few short years (by 2020), growing to an impressive $4.1 trillion by 2030.

(Source: Rollback Malaria, Action and Investment to defeat Malaria 2016-2030)

However previous research, also conducted by advocates for malaria elimination, found insufficient basis for using financial benefits to justify the costs of fighting malaria.

Rollback Malaria (RBM) would not explain how it arrived at its inviting rates of return, declining to provide a spreadsheet. “The Excel sheet has data from all countries that was modelled up to give the global costs so it isn’t terribly helpful,” said Helen Prytherch of the University of Basel. Prytherch would not send the spreadsheet and suggested talking with the lead economist instead.

The process of peer review prevented bringing forth the details of the estimate. “We are working on your request,” said Prytherch, who continued:

“Several scientists from different institutions worked over a two-year period to establish the new malaria targets, cost them and then to establish and implement a cost benefit analysis. They are now preparing scientific papers to get the work into the public domain. They should be ready for submission by end September.”

However, in 2010, a consortium of pro-elimination researchers concluded that "policy makers should not view the generation of substantial short-term or medium-term cost-savings as a rationale for elimination until more robust evidence is available to suggest otherwise."

Investigators at the University California at San Francisco (UCSF) subsequently sought but did not find robust evidence of cost saving. Findings from ten case studies “do not change the conclusion” that cost should not be viewed as rationale for elimination, according UCSF’s Rima Shretta. Shretta said “malaria elimination should not be pursued merely on the grounds of cost-savings as these often fail to capture all the externalities garnered by disease elimination.”

Of RBM’s plan, Shretta says “it is an advocacy document rather than an academic analysis.” RBM’s macroeconomic analysis “was done using published data rather than an empirical analysis.” In the reinterpretation of existing results, RBM “used a full-income approach which produced larger benefits than some other approaches.” Several previous studies “have not been able to do this using short term projections,” according to Shretta.

Either malaria advocacy is going to depart from established academic research, or the academic consensus might be about to change. “I think if an academic analysis supports elimination – great,” said Shretta. Rather than argue against such an analysis, Shretta seems to have adapted to its inevitability: “the benefits are often underestimated so [elimination] should not ONLY be based on an economic argument but ALSO a social, development and moral perspective.”

On the present trajectory, science will soon give its blessing to malaria eradication being wildly profitable in addition to its other virtues.

Clarification

Posted August 26, 2015

Since publication of this article, Rima Shretta disclosed to me her membership in the task force for Action and Investment to defeat Malaria (AIM). AIM produced the estimate of $4.1 trillion of economic benefits to be gained from malaria elimination examined in my article. Shretta would not explain why she did not inform me of this critical fact. However, it is the responsibility of the journalist to establish the independence of an observer and I regret that I failed in this regard.

Shretta disputes multiple aspects of the article. Prior to disclosing her involvement in AIM, Shretta requested a correction to the article:

I believe my opinion has been mis-represented. I do not dispute the analysis in AIM. I also have not adapted to its inevitability. The statement below is incorrect:

"Rather than argue against such an analysis, Shretta seems to have adapted to its inevitability"

We strongly believe in the case for elimination and its returns - financial and otherwise. In my opinion often the analysis does not make the case strong enough because of the other factors that cannot be measured well.

I responded in part:

I asked Richard Feachem if there was new evidence on the matter of costs and benefits. He referred me to you. You stated there was no new evidence to change the conclusion of the 2010 [Lancet] paper.

So something has to give. There is a $4 trillion discrepancy. 

Shretta, now stating she was on the AIM task force, then requested multiple changes to the article, including re-working or deleting all quotations except one. She wrote in email: “I am fine with the statement that ‘malaria elimination should not be pursued merely on the grounds of cost-savings as these often fail to capture all the externalities garnered by disease elimination.’ “ However, “the rest of the quotes are out of context…”

Shretta did not reply to a question regarding her involvement with AIM. However, I withdraw the statement that Shretta adapted to the inevitability of the AIM document.

Post-publication, regarding the key question of reconciling the Lancet paper with AIM, Shretta wrote: “The Lancet paper warned on rationalizing elimination based on a financial argument alone.” Arguably, this is a considerable misinterpretation. The Lancet paper warned that short- and medium- term economic benefits cannot be part of an argument for elimination, whether alone or in conjunction with any other arguments.

Shretta’s penultimate communication states:

The AIM is based on country level data on malaria disease and a transmission model that forecasts the disease over time. This was then costed out. The analysis on the benefits is from published data. We at UCSF do not dispute the findings of AIM.

One less apocalypse: Questioning the spread of drug-resistant malaria

Drug resistance has twice started in Southeast Asia, both times leading to massive epidemics of untreatable malaria in Africa. Only the introduction of artemisinin combination therapy earlier this century beat back the most recent wave of drug resistance. Now artemisinin is buckling, leading to understandable worry about yet another resistance apocalypse. But current scientific evidence contradicts the narrative of doom voiced by journalists (including me) and much of the malaria research community.

Artemisinin resistance has barely spread but instead popped up on its own, evolving independently in areas scattered across Southeast Asia. The effort to “contain” resistance by wiping out malaria in the region will not prevent independent emergence in Sub-Saharan Africa where home-grown resistance could develop undetected by today’s weak surveillance system.

Artemisinin resistant malaria results from changes to a complicated genetic network that will be difficult to infiltrate into other parasite populations without it coming apart. However, elimination efforts Southeast Asia both strengthen resistance and streamline its genetics for easier transmission abroad, fomenting the very apocalypse it supposedly seeks to avoid.

Not spreading even in Southeast Asia

Drug resistant malaria is scarcely spreading at all in Southeast Asia, even within national borders. The most comprehensive survey found only three instances of spread out of 112 samples from across the region. Parasites thought to have originated in Cambodia were found in people tested near the border with Vietnam. “All other mutations appear to have arisen independently,” scientists concluded. Other researchers concur that resistance “is primarily due to the proliferation of newly emerging mutations…” Rather than spreading, most instances of resistance “appear to be localized to a relatively small geographical area…”

A paper on resistance in Myanmar includes the word “spread” in its title but adduces little evidence and no claims for it. Scientists found “strong evidence” of resistance in Myanmar “including regions close to the Indian border in the northwest,” a worry because past drug resistance is thought to have spread first to India before leaping to Africa. However, resistance is not spreading, according to the authors, rather it “extends” across Myanmar. Seven individual mutations appear “to have arisen independently” more than once, pointing not to spread but de novo emergence.

Resistance has not spread to Myanmar: “Contrary to the widely assumed scenario,” concluded another research group, “we found no evidence of westward spread of artemisinin resistance from Cambodia to Myanmar.” So far in Laos and Bangladesh, mutations associated with resistance are “absent or found at much lower frequency,” additional evidence against regional spread.

Sizable population movements within and between countries seemingly ought to create an equivalent dispersion of resistance. Why that hasn’t happened is “a very good question,” said Philippe Guyant, co-author of a paper on malaria and migrant workers in Cambodia. “I don’t think there is a definitive answer to it given the current state of knowledge.”

But the domino theory of spreading resistance, although widely-discussed and deeply worrisome, is not supported by current scientific evidence which shows that drug-resistant malaria is scarcely spreading even within Southeast Asia.

Genetic complexity militates against spread

Conclusive evidence of artemisinin resistance emerged in 2008, but the complexity of the underlying genetics frustrated efforts to find a molecular marker until 2014 when mutations in a gene called Kelch 13 (K13) were finally implicated.

K13 mutations appear necessary but not sufficient for resistance; supporting mutations appear to be needed. Scientists inserted resistance-associated K13 mutations into parasites susceptible to artemisinin. Modified parasites originally from Cambodia showed a greater increase in resistance than other genetically altered lines, “suggesting a role for additional parasite factors in augmenting K13-mediated resistance…” Four other genes have been connected with resistance in Southeast Asia. In two African samples, scientists found the supporting mutations “were rare or absent… suggesting that they are the product of evolutionary selection within Southeast Asia.” In Southeast Asia, the K13 mutations appeared only after the supporting cast was in place.

Right now, artemisinin resistance in Southeast Asia is tightly bound to an interconnected set of genetic changes particular to its evolutionary history, a history that differs greatly from much of Africa—although not all.

For artemisinin resistance to spread to Africa it will have to overrun incumbent populations. However, the delicate architecture of resistance—multiple mutations riding several different chromosomes—is likely to be pulled apart by the sexual recombination of malaria parasites. Years ago, malaria dragged down the combination drug sulfadoxine-pyrimethamine by incrementally accumulating changes. By contrast, a mutation to K13 seems to need simultaneous changes elsewhere in the genome to balance fitness costs, compete with other parasites or both.

According to Olivo Miotto, co-author of a paper on the genetic architecture of artemisinin-resistance:

“The fact that the main Kelch 13 mutations emerge only on a certain genetic background suggests that there is something special about those parasites. Perhaps it is this ‘something special’ (associated with the genetic background we have identified) that needs to spread in Africa before Kelch 13… I’m pretty sure that Kelch 13 mutations alone will not be enough.”

Another obstacle to the spread of resistance to Africa is far lower drug pressure there. Malaria in Southeast Asia is less intense, so people generally do not acquire immunity and fall ill when infected. The sick seek and receive treatment at very high rates, piling on drug pressure. By contrast, “Right now, only a portion of African parasites get exposure to the drug,” observed Miotto. In much of Sub-Saharan Africa, more intense malaria means greater natural immunity, leading to a greater number of infections that cause no sickness. The unsick seek no treatment. If parasites aren’t exposed to the drug, resistance to artemisinin confers no fitness advantage and will be swept from the genome.

Unknown unknowns

However, much remains unknown and possible parallels with the past are cause for concern. Although artemisinin resistance appears to rely on more than K13 mutations, according to Miotto, chloroquine resistance, early in its development, also might have needed more than one mutation. For chloroquine, “the key marker was identified, but the story may still be incomplete—don’t confuse that with it being simple… We could only study the aftermath,” which pointed to a mutation in one gene. According to Miotto, malaria could yet produce a single K13 mutation that prevails against artemisinin.

Chris Plowe at the University Maryland concurred: “What is happening now with artemisinin resistance may not be all that different from what happened with chloroquine, sulfadoxine and pyrimethamine resistance in the past. We are just witnessing it in real time with a lot more data.”

Continuing research might find more evidence for spread. According to Shannon Takala-Harrison at the University of Maryland, with increasing numbers of samples, “we are seeing additional evidence for spread as well as independent emergence of mutations.” She looked forward to discussing “more concrete results and conclusions as they become available.”

At this particular time, however, there is astonishingly little evidence of spread and sizable genetic and environmental obstacles working against it.

Policy discomfited by evidence

The current policy of elimination fits somewhat awkwardly with current evidence. If artemisinin resistance mostly emerges independently, increased surveillance in Africa rather than containment in Southeast Asia might be more sensible. But according to Patrick Kachur, head of the malaria branch at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), eliminating all malaria in Southeast Asia makes good sense: “I think the threat of artemisinin-resistance spreading to Africa is a compelling reason why global malaria advocates should be interested in eliminating malaria in Southeast Asia.” Also, countries in the region have their own, additional reasons for wanting to be completely free of malaria, according to Kachur.

Elimination has been “a moderately effective advocacy message,” Kachur said. It is one the malaria research community seems loathe to change even though science does not clearly support it. Neither Kachur nor Plowe responded to emails asking them to contradict the hypothesis that drug-resistant malaria is not actually spreading. Emails to the Gates Foundation also received no answer.

The narrative of doom obscures an all-too rare bright spot in malaria and global health: the pipeline for new antimalarial drugs is incredibly robust. Although grim headlines say, for example, “No 'plan C' drugs available,” multiple new candidate drugs and entire new drug classes have been discovered largely under the umbrella of the Medicines for Malaria Venture, a public-private partnership started by the Gates Foundation.

However, Bill Gates adds his voice to the apocalypse chorus. In a YouTube video, Gates described the possible spread of resistance as “the biggest disaster for control ever.”

Next Gates says: “We’re trying to figure out if we can do local eradications.” But if resistance, rather than eradication, were the primary concern, elimination is no longer automatically the right strategy.

“Drug resistance is driven by drugs,” as Olivo Miotto put it. Elimination maximizes drug resistance, making it stronger and more heritable as drug pressure reshapes and streamlines the initially complex genetics of resistance. This is “the core question” for Miotto. “Drug resistance doesn’t come from heaven; we create it, we encourage it.” He called for better models “to predict the outcome of intervention as we move forward,” saying “responsible approaches to deploying drugs are key.”

Nonetheless, CDC’s Kachur said “enthusiasm is high among global and subregional malaria subject matter experts” for elimination.  Chris Plowe argues that “What the independent emergences tell us is that containment is not likely to work, so by eliminating we can at least try to prevent the most fit, viable and dangerous forms from spreading.” However, elimination propels greater fitness, viability and more dangerous forms that are more likely to spread.  Per the title of a 2009 paper about eliminating artemisinin-resistant malaria in Cambodia, “The last man standing is the most resistant.”

Mathematical models show elimination is unlikely to work. Gates Foundation-funded researchers found that extinguishing malaria was not possible in many places, including in Southeast Asia: “Prospects for elimination in Myanmar and southern Thailand do not appear to be favorable.” Myanmar, recently announced the goal of eliminating malaria.

In another study, “An optimal control strategy to reduce the spread of malaria resistance,” even models using both mass drug administration and insecticide measures fail to completely get rid of drug-resistant malaria. “We think from our models that it is true it is not possible to eliminate drug resistant malaria just using mass drug administration and insecticide,” confirmed co-author Fatmawati Armawi of the Universitas Airlangga.

With elimination exacerbating resistance, evidence-driven policy would seem to suggest reducing drug pressure in Southeast Asia and intensifying surveillance in Africa. The edges of the malaria belt in Africa have low transmission like Southeast Asia. In addition, countries that have advanced toward malaria elimination also have low transmission coupled at times with high drug pressure. According to Miotto, “These should probably be our ‘sentinels’ ” for artemisinin resistance in Africa.

At present, however, malaria science and malaria advocacy appear to have separated.

Malaria elimination efforts jeopardizing early pregnancies in Southeast Asia

Bill & Melinda Gates in Pailin, Cambodia (Photo/video still: Gates Foundation)

Large-scale drug administration campaigns are putting early pregnancies at risk in Southeast Asia where efforts are under way to eliminate malaria. World Health Organization (WHO) treatment guidelines state that frontline antimalarial drugs based on artemisinin should not be given to women in the first trimester of pregnancy. Animal studies have found artemisinin caused early termination of pregnancies and birth defects.

But few programs test for pregnancy, according to the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC). Even a malaria treatment project funded and visited by Bill & Melinda Gates in Pailin, Cambodia seems not to be screening for pregnancy and departing from WHO guidelines.

Eliminating drug resistance & gearing up for global eradication

In Southeast Asia, the countries surrounding the Mekong River are seeking to completely eliminate malaria. The driving force comes from concern that drug-resistant malaria might spread from Asia to Africa, which has happened twice in the past at enormous human cost. Now artemisinin is under threat. In addition, elimination efforts in the Mekong region can provide valuable experience for the much greater ambition of global malaria eradication. As Bill Gates put it, “We’re trying to figure out, can we do local eradications?”

Malaria elimination leans heavily on large-scale administration of the frontline antimalarial drugs, artemisinin combination therapy (ACTs). Some campaigns test for infection, the “screen & treat” approach. Other campaigns simply treat everyone regardless of infection status in mass drug administrations (MDAs).

“It’s not possible to generalize,” how drug campaigns handle pregnancy, according to Patrick Kachur, malaria branch chief at the CDC. There are many campaigns and multiple institutions behind them, sometimes in partnerships. According to Kachur:

"In some of the MDA trials or pilot programs currently pregnant women were excluded by design.  In others they were not (or that detail has not been reported).  In most of the test and treat approaches pregnant women were usually included (occasionally receiving a different treatment regimen than children and non-pregnant adults if they tested positive)."

As a result, women who are or might be in the first trimester of pregnancy are being given artemisinin in some campaigns. Some pregnant women treated for malaria might not even be infected with the disease. WHO guidelines call for quinine and clindamycin in the first trimester of pregnancy--when the mother actually has malaria.

Artemisinin appears to be safe for mothers in all stages of pregnancy. However, in animals, artemisinin is embryotoxic and causes birth defects. (See review here.) The animal exposures to artemisinin were not extreme but adjusted to be near the equivalent, WHO-recommended therapeutic dose for humans. Even so, animal models can be misleading. The shorter development period in rats might be far more sensitive to artemisinin exposure than the more prolonged development process in humans and that “could have a protective effect for human fetuses,” as one researcher noted. Artemisinin might be safe—or not.

Assessing risk: prioritize obstetrics or malaria control?

In 2007, researchers wrote that larger, “methodologically rigorous” studies of artemisinin and pregnancy were “urgently required.” The authors worried that “early pregnancy loss will be difficult to detect, especially in communities where artemisinins are likely to be used most frequently.”

But more recently, concerns have partly subsided, perhaps more among malaria specialists than obstetricians. “My concern has gone down on this issue,” said Brian Greenwood, of the London School for Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and co-author of the 2007 paper calling for examination of artemisinin safety. More recently, Greenwood said: “There is now extensive clinical experience that ACTs are safe in the second and third trimesters but, not surprisingly, less data on exposure in the first trimester.” 

There has been no larger, methodologically rigorous safety study; it might not be possible to perform ethically. Instead, “the numbers of documented cases of exposures in the first trimester is still fairly limited,” said Greenwood, “in the hundreds, so a rare event could not be excluded and it would be difficult, or probably impossible, to detect fetal resorption.” Fetal resorption is defined as “The disintegration and assimilation of the dead fetus in the uterus at any stage after the completion of organogenesis which, in humans, is after the 9th week of gestation.” 

The Gates Foundation, asked whether artemisinin posed a health risk in early pregnancy, demurred. Foundation spokesperson Bryan Callahan instead suggested seeking comment from WHO “on whether they are planning to revise their normative guidance.” Callahan expected that WHO “would take available scientific research into account in reviewing their guidance, including a growing body of observational research on pregnant women.” Meetings in coming months could see the WHO guidelines revised.

However, the safety of artemisinin in early pregnancy is not established by evidence that would lead to regulatory approval in the developed world. Physicians in the United States would not administer artemisinin to a pregnant woman in the first trimester, particularly in the absence of a malaria infection, as is happening in countries like Cambodia and other nations in the Mekong River region.

Wealthy countries don’t have malaria and so can prioritize pregnancy. Still, a public health policy that increases pregnancy risks to mothers living with less money and more disease makes for a problematic ethical situation at best.

'Programs should screen for pregnancy'

“I think programs that use MDA should provide pregnancy testing like we do in Wellcome Trust units,” said Rose McGready from the Shoklo Malaria Research Unit in Mae Sot, Thailand. According to McGready, proving safety in first trimester drugs or vaccines “is extremely difficult and more so in countries where health systems are not working well.”

Even regarding currently approved drugs, McGready asked: “how much data do we have for them? Many are assumed to be safe [like] quinine; but only proper comparative studies will provide a definitive answer.”

Melinda Gates has been campaigning for “Putting women and girls at the center of development,” as she wrote last year in Science. According to Gates, the foundation focused in its earliest days on research. Its second phase included an emphasis on delivery. For the foundation's third incarnation, “what I’m making sure we add on now is the women and girls lens,” she recently said.

But that lens seems to have been absent when Melinda and Bill Gates visited a screen and treat program in Pailin, Cambodia earlier this year.

Blogged Bill Gates:

“we walked to a local school where the screening is taking place. That morning, about 120 people had come to get their blood drawn and tested for the malaria parasite. They also answered a few questions designed to find out whether they might have been exposed to the parasite (e.g., ‘Do you work in the forest?’).” 

Gates did not mention questions about pregnancy or pregnancy tests.

Dance of the blameless

Asked whether the Pailin program included pregnancy screening, foundation spokesperson Bryan Callahan replied: “We recommend that you direct any detailed questions to MORU,” Mahidol Oxford Tropical Medicine Research Unit. MORU was the foundation partner responsible for the project and orchestrated the Gates’ visit to Pailin. According to Callahan, “Like all foundation grantees, MORU was required to secure country-level IRB approval for its malaria treatment protocols, and these protocols include a pregnancy screening component.”

Callahan would not confirm that other Gates grantees were screening for pregnancy, although he acknowledged that he had "received the feedback that I had requested from partners" as part of what he termed "due diligence" in answering the "chemotherapy for pregnant women question."

Callahan would not provide a list of the Gates Foundation partners. “We list all of our Malaria program grantees on our website, and you are free to contact them,” said Callahan. A search for “malaria” on the foundation’s grant website returns 1,000 matches. 

Asked whether MORU specifically was testing for pregnancy rather than just required to, Callahan answered: “The partner is MORU, so you have an answer to your question.” The answer, however, was not “yes.” Pressed further, Callahan said: “As I have stated several times, foundation grantees are required to use protocols approved by local IRBs. You need to consult directly with MORU on your question.”

Asked for the most appropriate contact at MORU, Callahan supplied a link to the MORU contact page.

Buck passed

According to MORU’s Lorenz Von Seidlein, “We are coordinating several studies which include mass drug administrations and are funded by the BMGF,” the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Regarding the scope of the effort, Von Seidlin wrote: “drugs have been administered in Vietnam and… in [the] Thai-Myanmar border areas [while] drug administrations are planned in Pailin/Battambang Cambodia in the coming weeks and in Laos at the beginning of next year.”

To describe the project, Von Seidlin pointed to a paper entitled “Fighting fire with fire.” It likened targeted malaria elimination to the tactic of “back burning” in battling forest fires. According to the paper, “all community members whether infected or not are offered antimalarial treatment.” The three-day treatment is given a minimum of three times, one month apart, creating multiple possible exposures of first trimester pregnancies. (It’s not clear that such a regimen has been tested in animal models. Some animal studies found pregnancy harms from artemisinin increased with dose size.)

The paper does not mention pregnancy screening. Asked in email, “Are the mass drug administrations screening for early pregnancy?” as the Gates Foundations says is required of its partners, Von Seidlen did not reply.

Echo?

The nonprofit FHI360 is administering a malaria grant from the Global Fund, also focused on Pailin. Asked if pregnancy screening was part of the program's protocol, an FHI360 spokesperson "reached out to our experts" but never replied to the question. FHI360 touts its namesake "360° perspective" and lists "gender" as a practice area.

WHO's Walter Kazadi coordinates the Emergency Response to Artemisinin Resistance (ERAR) in the Greater Mekong Subregion. Kazadi did not reply to email asking about anti-malarial administration and pregnancy screening.

Eradication: an experiment

Whether the drug-based strategy will eliminate malaria is not known. According to Von Seidlen’s paper, “It is not clear what coverage is required to interrupt transmission, a question mathematical modelers may be able to answer.” However, Gates-funded modelers have already said mass drug administration alone will not eliminate malaria in Southeast Asia.

Bednets and insecticide spraying will be hard pressed to close the gap as substantial numbers of people at risk for malaria live largely outdoors. Many do not wish to be offered malaria treatment or even to be found by government or non-government organizations. To gain cooperation in relatively docile Pailin, Bill Gates said those participating “were paid a day’s wages, the equivalent of about $2.50, and got a free lunch.”

About 1,700 people were processed, but the program would need to be scaled up to reach 4 million people in Cambodia, according to Gates. “We have to clear the parasites of all the humans in an area,” Gates said, making no exclusion for pregnancy. “Eradication is an ambitious goal,” concluded Gates. “It is a goal to which we remain 100% committed.”

'Radical cure' and pregnancy

Pregnancy might pose some difficulties for eradication. The Gates Foundation’s strategy calls for a “complete cure,” a new drug able to clear malaria infections in one dose, unlike today’s three-day regimen. However, the more radical the cure, the greater the potential impact on pregnancies.

Fortunately, one leading candidate, OZ439, looks far better than artemisinin: “OZ439 is 100 times safer,” according to Tim Wells, Chief Scientific Officer at the Medicines for Malaria Venture (MMV). Wells did not point to a paper or adduce evidence for his statement.

Another highly promising drug, KAE609, presents more of a mystery—even to Wells. Although KAE609 originated from a partnership of MMV and Novartis, the drug company re-possessed its intellectual property after discovering the considerable promise and commercial prospects of KAE609. The rest of the world and even Wells are now on the outside looking in. Novartis apparently has safety data but “has not talked about them externally,” according to Wells.

In early studies, KAE609 was given in multiple smaller doses: three times, 30 milligrams per dose, “which gives a certain plasma exposure,” said Wells. More recently, aiming for radical cure, a single dose of 75 milligrams has been tested. “If they have to go with the higher number," 2.5 times higher, "the safety margin is of course a little bit lower,” observed Wells.

Two other drug candidates are in development, providing a quite remarkable and impressive range of options. “The key will be that we can’t design molecules safe for pregnancy," said Wells, "but we can at least pick the most likely candidates, now that we have a little bit of choice.” 

The choice will be important. More mass drug administrations are likely. According to Bernard Nahlen, "the countries which have eliminated up to this point have not done so without MDA." Nahlen is the Deputy Coordinator of the President's Malaria Initiative. Also, malaria diagnostics aren’t sensitive enough to find low level infections. To clear every infection, including those that are undetectable, eradication would mean “treating” even the uninfected and the possibly pregnant. According to Wells, “for MDA where the subjects don’t have the disease, we need to be looking at vaccine levels of safety – say one serious adverse event in 20,000 cases.” 

However, given current practices which elide or ignore pregnancy concerns in Southeast Asia, global malaria eradication might expose much of a generation in Sub-Saharan Africa to antimalarials, whether artemisinin or new drugs in the pipeline, whose effects on pregnancy and development are not fully understood.


Article history:

[7/22/2015 2:46 PM] Quotation from Bernard Nahlen added