Hearing on Antidepressants Canceled

By Shankar Vedantam
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 21, 2004; Page A04

A high-profile congressional hearing into the safety of antidepressant medicines was abruptly canceled on Sunday afternoon by a House panel whose chairman is weighing a top job at a trade group representing the biotech and pharmaceutical industries.

Rep. James C. Greenwood (R-Pa.) is reported to be considering an offer to become president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, whose members include most of the pharmaceutical companies that were to send representatives to testify at the hearing.

In a statement -- an e-mail attachment titled "retirement.doc" -- the moderate Republican said he has been reviewing an opportunity and will shortly announce his decision. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) told reporters that Greenwood will be leaving Congress but did not say what his new job would be.

The outgoing president of the biotech trade organization, Carl B. Feldbaum, said the group has not talked with Greenwood about the antidepressant issue.

Patients rights advocates voiced outrage at the turn of events. "What this shows is that things are so corrupt," said Vera Hassner Sharav, a patient rights advocate, after learning that the hearing had been canceled. Sharav said that in calling a hearing into the issue, Greenwood had exploited the families harmed by the medicines. "We now suspect the whole investigation was done to up his price," she said.

The Energy and Commerce subcommittee on oversight and investigations said its hearing was postponed because the chief counsel has been called to Los Alamos. A new date will be announced shortly, a spokesman said.

A Democratic staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue said he believes Greenwood canceled the hearing because of the job offer. The staff member, who noted that his views are shared by Republicans and Democrats, said Greenwood had likely decided that it would be unseemly to chair the hearing and then announce that he is taking a job at the trade group.

"He couldn't have held that hearing," the staffer said.

Greenwood, who supports abortion rights and is considered a Republican moderate, has seen eye to eye with the Biotechnology Industry Organization on stem cell research and other issues. Feldbaum said the group has mostly worked with Greenwood on bioethics.

The hearing had been called to investigate pharmaceutical companies that have kept negative data about their antidepressant medications secret. Greenwood had demanded information from the Food and Drug Administration on the issue and had requested a Government Accountability Office inquiry.

Companies have published only studies that found the medications to be effective, even though two-thirds of the studies found them no better than sugar pills. British regulators warned doctors last year not to prescribe the drugs, citing an elevated risk of suicidal behavior among children. The FDA is investigating the issue.

Executives from seven pharmaceutical companies were to testify at the hearing, according to documents the subcommittee gave Sharav. Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., GlaxoSmithKline, Eli Lilly and Co., Pfizer Inc. and Wyeth are all members of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, said Dan Eramian, the group's vice president for communications. Two other companies that were to testify, Forest Laboratories Inc. and Organon, are not members.

2004 The Washington Post Company