Sat, Jan 21, 2017 - Page 8 News List

Dealing with conflicts of interest

By Wong Yu-feng 翁裕峰

Following the indictment of former Academia Sinica president Wong Chi-huey (翁啟惠) by the Shilin District Court on Monday, I read the law that Wong allegedly violated and the evidence listed in the indictment; and I had to sadly approve of the indictment. Taiwan is still a long way from eliminating the injustices caused by conflicts of interest in the biotech industry.

The section about disclosing conflicts of interest in the Fundamental Science and Technology Act (科學技術基本法) is nothing but a hollow shell, as it allows each research institution to set internal regulations that are beneficial to itself.

This is in stark contrast to the US’ conflict of interest policy, which is concretely set down in substantive regulations. Only by completely overhauling the conditions regulating the disclosure of conflicts of interest will it be possible for these talented people to freely develop their skills.

In January last year, former Academia Sinica vice president Chen Chien-jen (陳建仁), who advocated for the passage of the Act for the Development of Biotech and New Pharmaceuticals Industry (生技新藥產業發展條例), was elected vice president alongside President Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文).

On Jan. 28 last year, soon after their election, I wrote an article about the Fundamental Science and Technology Act, which was amended following a 2010 biotech case involving Academia Sinica.

I pointed out that the articles on the disclosure of conflicts of interest aimed at promoting cooperation between industrial and academic circles were completely different from federal legislation in the US and regulations at Stanford University.

The act does not establish a national system for reporting conflicts of interest and establishes no clear regulations requiring the disclosure of specific information to prevent conflict of interest. Instead, it authorizes individual institutions to write and execute their own conflict of interest policies.

As a result, I urged Chen to discuss, establish and implement a national policy addressing these shortcomings.

It was only two months later that questions arose about conflicts of interest in Wong’s dealings with the biotech company OBI Pharma. The main focus of attention was on Wong’s daughter’s selling of her OBI Pharma shares immediately before the company released news that one of its products had failed a blind test and that Wong had not reported to Academia Sinica that his daughter was a shareholder of the company.

After a year-long investigation, the prosecutor found that Wong had not been involved in insider trading, but indicted him on charges of corruption, believing that OBI Pharma gave shares to Wong’s daughter in exchange for Academia Sinica’s patent on next-generation synthetic oligosaccharides technology.

The scandal has not only been a serious personal blow to Wong, but also for Taiwan’s biotech industry, where Wong, an internationally recognized authority on synthetic oligosaccharides technology, has been a leading figure.

How did the system for reporting conflicts of interest fail to protect the world-famous biotech star from the scandal?

This story has to be approached from the perspective of the amended Fundamental Science and Technology Act, which places practical control of conflicts of interest completely in the hands of individual research institutions.

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