Government Must Restore Public Trust in Medical Science

Hosting a weekly talk show on Mississippi’s oldest African American radio station, my focus over the last several months has been on trying to help get those unvaccinated for Covid-19, to reconsider. Just over half of the state’s eligible residents have gotten one or more doses of the vaccine.

Vaccine hesitancy affects both Black and white Mississippians, and the problem is not always connected to politics — even though the state’s Republican governor has resisted mask mandates and other commonsense methods to mitigating the pandemic. Rather, vaccine opposition is often the result of indifference to government health warnings or a mistrust of authority.

Vaccine hesitancy is a crisis, but we also have to be honest that people are right to be distrustful of government and the pharmaceutical industries. Health care is big business, which means that when billions of dollars of profit are on the line, the public’s best interest is sometimes overlooked.

The pandemic has also proven that community mistrust of medicine is a public health crisis. Vaccine hesitancy has cost thousands of lives and stymied our economy. With this in mind, it is absolutely critical that the federal government take immediate steps to try and restore the American people’s faith in our health system.

One issue that has not gotten enough attention from lawmakers and regulators is the prevalence of medical and scientific studies that are not based on real data. Rather, these papers seem to be marketing tools intended to sway doctors and the public about the benefits or safety of certain medical products.

Earlier this year, the publication Nature published a piece called: “The fight against fake-paper factories that churn out sham science.” The article found that there are now apparently paper mills across the globe that churn out fake medical and scientific studies.

Not surprisingly, these paper mills tend to be located in places like Russia, Iran and China.

According to Nature, sleuths looking into the preponderance of fake studies found that by March 2021, there were “collectively listed more than 1,300 articles” possibly developed by paper mills. In other words, the existence of an entire industry created to defraud.

Clearly, the Food and Drug Administration, the Department of Justice and Congress need to get serious about holding companies that use this type of false science accountable. If we ignore this problem, it’s likely only a matter of time until one of these fake studies does real damage. Once that happens, it will only further undermine people’s faith in medical science.

Similarly, there should be stronger rules to ensure that health care companies use their research in ways that are both ethical and truthful. For example, a trial is set for later this month in Delaware district court in which the medical company CareDX, which sells a test to see whether a kidney transplant patient might be rejecting a donated organ, is suing its competitor Natera for false advertising.  Natera has directly compared its new product — not yet on the market — to CareDX’s. But in a court decision to allow this case to move to trial, a federal magistrate found that no study comparing the two competing products has ever been conducted.

The intended audiences for Natera’s advertisements are not patients or the American public, but medical professionals, hospitals and others who make the decisions about which medical testing devices to purchase.

Federal lawmakers should watch this case closely over the next few months. If the court sides with CareDX, then more needs to be done to better regulate how medical companies advertise their own products and what they can say about competing products. After all, it wasn’t not so long ago that the FDA allowed Purdue Pharma to falsely tell doctors that its opioid, Oxycontin, was less addictive than other opioids. The FDA should learn from its mistakes. It’s also wrong to force a business to incur the costs and time of litigation to stop a competitor from mischaracterizing supposed scientific data.

Ensuring that health care companies tell the truth is a never-ending battle for the government watchdogs — but the price of failure means more public distrust of medical professionals. While the government faces a monumental task in making sure health care companies operate ethically, it’s a worthy fight. After all, failure creates public health setbacks that hurt all of society.


Ronnie Shows, a Democrat, represented Mississippi’s 4th Congressional District from 1999-2003.

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