Some of you may have seen a headline in the Sunday Express Newspaper ‘Statin, new safety checks.’ The subheading was ‘Oxford professor who championed controversial drug to reassess evidence of side effects.’
Those of you who read this blog probably know that the professor in question is Sir Rory Collins. He, more than anyone, has championed the ever wider prescription of these drugs. He has also ruthlessly attacked anyone who dares make any criticism of them.
You may remember that last year he tried to get the BMJ to retract two articles claiming that statins had side effects (correctly called adverse effects, but I will call them side-effects to avoid confusion) of around 18 – 20%.
He stated that these articles were irresponsible, worse than Andrew Wakefield’s work on the MMR vaccine, and that thousands would die if they were scared off taking their statins by such articles. Ah yes, the old ‘thousands will die’ game. A game I have long since tired of.
Is this story ringing any bells yet? The truth was that both articles quoted a paper which stated that 17.4% of people suffered adverse effects. So, yes, a pedant would say that the 18 – 20% figure was wrong – although not very wrong. Certainly not worth a demand of instant retraction, and apology, which is a very drastic step indeed.
Anyway, below is a short description of the findings of an independent panel set up by Fiona Godlee, editor of the BMJ, regarding the Rory Collins attacks [This has appeared on my blog before]:
“As previously reported, Rory Collins, a prominent researcher and head of the Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration, had demanded that The BMJ retract two articles that were highly critical of statins. Although The BMJ issued a correction for both papers for inaccurately citing an earlier publication and therefore overstating the incidence of adverse effects of statins, this response did not satisfy Collins. He repeatedly demanded that the journal issue a full retraction of the articles, prompting The BMJ’s editor-in-chief, Fiona Godlee, to convene an outside panel of experts to review the problem.
The report of the independent statins review panel exonerates The BMJ from wrong doing and said the controversial articles should not be retracted:
“The panel were unanimous in their decision that the two papers do not meet any of the criteria for retraction. The error did not compromise the principal arguments being made in either of the papers. These arguments involve interpretations of available evidence and were deemed to be within the range of reasonable opinion among those who are debating the appropriate use of statins.”
In fact, the panel was critical of Collins for refusing to submit a published response to the articles:
“The panel noted with concern that despite the Editor’s repeated requests that Rory Collins should put his criticisms in writing as a rapid response, a letter to the editor or as a stand-alone article, all his submissions were clearly marked ‘Not for Publication’. The panel considered this unlikely to promote open scientific dialogue in the tradition of the BMJ.””1
To provide a bit more context at this point, you should know that for a number of years, people have been trying to get Rory Collins to release the data he and his unit (the CTT), holds on statins. [The CTT was set up purely to get hold of and review all the data on statins, it has no other function].
He has stubbornly refused to let anyone see anything. He claims he signed non-disclosure contracts with pharmaceutical companies who send him the data, so he cannot allow anyone else access. Please remember that some of the trials he holds data on were done over thirty years ago, and the drugs are long off patent. So how the hell could any data still be ‘confidential’ or ‘commercially sensitive’ now?
[The concept that vital data on drug adverse effects can be considered confidential, and no-one is allowed to see it, is completely ridiculous anyway. But that is an argument for another day.]
Now, amazingly, after running the CTT for nearly twenty years, Collins claims that ‘he has not seen the full data on side-effects.’ In an e-mail to the Sunday Express he stated that ‘his team had assessed the effects of statins on heart disease and cancer but not other side effects such as muscle pain.’
Let that statement percolate for a moment or two. Then try to make sense of it. So, they have got the data, but not bothered to look at it? Or they have not got it – which surely must be the case if he hasn’t even seen it. Give us a clue. Either way, Collins states he has not assessed it.
Despite this, he still managed a vicious attack on the BMJ for publishing articles, claiming statins had side effects of around 20%. This was an interesting stance to stake, as he now claims he has no idea what the rate of side effects are? In which case he should make a grovelling apology to Fiona Godlee immediately.
What is certain, and must be reiterated, is that Rory Collins has consistently refused to allow anyone to see the side effect data, or any other data, that that the CTT may, or may not, hold. See e-mail below from Professor Colin Baigent to the ABC producer MaryAnne Demasi (she was trying to get the CTT to confirm that they would not release data, Colin Baigent is deputy to Rory Collins)
Subject: RE: URGENT COMMENT NEEDED PLEASE: ABC TV AUSTRALIA
Date: Tue, 24 Sep 2013 17:02:23 +0000
The CTT secretariat has agreement with the principal investigators of the trials and, in those instances where trial data were provided directly by the drug manufacturers, with the companies themselves, that individual trial data will not be released to third parties. Such an agreement was necessary in order that analyses of the totality of the available trial data could be conducted by the CTT Collaboration: without such an agreement the trial data could not have been brought together for systematic analysis. Such analysis has allowed the CTT Collaboration to conduct and report all of the analyses on efficacy and safety that have been sought directly or indirectly by others (eg by Dr Redberg in her papers on the efficacy and safety of statins in primary prevention, and in questions raised by the Cochrane Collaboration). Hence, the CTT Collaboration has made available findings that would not otherwise have emerged.
I would be very happy to ring you at whatever time is convenient for you in order to help you to understand our approach, and then address in writing any residual concerns. It would be a shame if we were not able to speak as this would be the most effective way of explaining things.
Please let me know where and some times when I can reach you, and I will endeavour to telephone.
I put the word safety in bold in this copied e-mail. You will note that Professor Colin Baigent does not say that that the CTT do not have these data on safety. He just says that the CTT won’t let anyone else see any data.
If they do have it, why have they not done this critically important review before, as they have had much of the data for over twenty years. If they don’t have it, how exactly is Rory Collins going to review it – as he states he is going to? Sorry to keep repeating this point, but I think it is absolutely critical.
Picture the scene in a lovely oak panelled office in Oxford, the city of the dreaming spires….
Professor Collins: ‘Hey guys, you’re just not going to believe this, but a researcher just found a big box in the airing cupboard, and guess what, it has all the safety data in it….phew.’
Professor Baigent: ‘Ahem… Why that’s lucky Professor Collins, now we can do the safety review.’
Professor Collins: ‘Ahem… Indeed, Professor Baigent, we can. So, let’s get cracking shall we?’
And lo it has come to pass that after all these years Professor Collins has deigned to look at the safety data. This review shall, in Collins own words ‘be challenging.’ But you know what really don’t think they should bother, because we all know exactly what they are going to find….
That they were right all along, statins have no side effects. Hoorah, pip, pip. Nothing to see here, now move along.
A.N.Other Researcher: ‘Please sir, can anyone else see these data that you hold, to ensure that you are being completely open and honest?’
Professor Collins: ‘Don’t be ridiculous, these data are completely confidential.’
At this point I feel that I should ask how much do you, gentle readers, believe you can trust a review by Collins, on the data that Collins holds, on behalf of the pharmaceutical industry. Data that no-one else can ever see. [And the data from clinical trials on side effects is totally inadequate anyway].
Were I to be given the task of finding someone to review the safety data on statins, Professor Sir Rory Collins would not be the first person I would ask. He might even be the last.
P.S. Actually, he would be the last.