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UK watchdog slaps AZ, Allergan, GSK, Sanofi and Brittania for marketing breaches

When UK-based AstraZeneca announced trial data in November 2020 showing its vaccine was highly effective in preventing COVID-19, a senior AZ global executive based in the U.S. took to LinkedIn to celebrate the news.

“While this is just a start, I am thankful for all those who have worked tirelessly on this vaccine program. It offers new hope to nations around the world,” the post read.

It included the hashtags #happythanksgiving, #vaccines, #astrazeneca, #covidinnovation, #immunization and #proudemployee and linked to a press release touting the favorable efficacy results.

The problem? Nine AZ employees in the UK “liked” the post, essentially distributing it to everyone in their network, and thus the UK public, in violation of the Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry’s (ABPI) code of conduct.

For the lapse, the Prescription Medicines Code of Practice Authority (PMCPA), the industry group’s self-regulatory body, slapped the drugmaker for promoting an unlicensed vaccine.

AZ was one of five companies the watchdog dinged in its latest report for marketing activities that ran afoul of industry standards, including ABPI’s Code 2, “bringing discredit upon, and reducing confidence in, the pharmaceutical industry.”

The British drugmaker defended the post as a personal communication aimed at recognizing those who worked on the vaccine, and said it wasn’t meant as a promotion, according to the case report. The watchdog disagreed, saying the post drew attention to medical research about COVID-19 “at a time when there would be much public interest.”

“Companies must ensure that any materials and activities related to the current public health emergency and which fell within the scope of the code, were compliant with it; there were no exemptions in that regard,” the panel said.

LinkedIn posts also spelled trouble for Allergan (now owned by AbbVie). The drugmaker got into hot water with the watchdog after an Allergan product specialist and sales manager each “liked” various LinkedIn posts promoting Botox anti-wrinkle injections, including one that referred to the use of Botox in men as “Brotox.”

According to the case report, the CEO of an aesthetics clinic, who is described in his/her LinkedIn profile as an “Allergan mentee,” posted “’Brotox: To soften fine lines and wrinkles,’ a shout out to @[named individual] who had come into the clinic for some subtle ‘Brotox,’” followed by the hashtags  #Brotox and #botox. An Allergan product specialist liked the post, and a sales manager liked other posts by the same CEO that also invoked the hashtag #botox.

By liking the posts, the employees not only promoted the prescription drug to the public, a practice that is banned in the UK where DTC drug advertising is illegal, but they also trivialized its use by endorsing the term “Brotox,” the panel said.

“In that regard, high standards had not been maintained,” the panel said. Allergan appealed, arguing in part that PMCPA didn’t give clear guidance on digital communications, but was unsuccessful. Instead, the appeals board publicly reprimand the pharma “for its widespread use of social media which promoted a prescription-only medicine to the public.”

Not all of the breaches involved activity on social media. Sanofi earned a rebuke for a “misleading” customer email about reimbursements for the company’s flu vaccine, including one the watchdog said “appeared to call into question official NHS guidance.”

The email “appeared to guarantee ” that orders for QIVe (quadrivalent vaccine egg grown) would be fully reimbursable, the panel noted, contradicting an NHS letter implying that they would be reimbursable only where QIVc (quadrivalent vaccine cell-based) vaccines were not available.

GSK was scolded for numerous breaches involving its COPD medicines Trelegy, Anoro, Incruse and Relvar. The panel faulted the company for including links to prescribing information for the drugs on invites and registration pages for asthma webinars, which it said gave the impression they are licensed to treat asthma when they are not.

It also called out GSK for failing to include adverse event reporting statements or an inverted black triangle for Incruse, Anoro and Trelegy, meant to flag that the drugs are subject to additional monitoring.

It wasn’t just Big Pharma attracting the marketing overseer’s attention, either. The watchdog called out UK specialty pharmaceutical company Brittania for, among other things, making payments to health professionals that were above fair market value and in some cases without a contract. The panel said Brittainia paid HCPs for preparation time for speaking engagements even though the speakers reused the same or essentially the same material.

Ads about the breaches appeared in the British Medical Journal last Saturday (March 19) and will appear in the Nursing Standard on April 5.