Background Concerns have been raised over competing interests (CoI) among academics during the 2009 to 2010 A/H1N1 pandemic. Media reporting can influence public anxiety and demand for pharmaceutical products. We assessed CoI of academics providing media commentary during the early stages of the pandemic.
Methods We performed a retrospective content analysis of UK newspaper articles on A/H1N1 influenza, examining quoted sources. We noted when academics made a risk assessment of the pandemic and compared this with official estimations. We also looked for promotion or rejection of the use of neuraminidase inhibitors or H1N1-specific vaccine. We independently searched for CoI for each academic.
Results Academics were the second most frequently quoted source after Ministers of Health. Where both academics and official agencies estimated the risk of H1N1, one in two academics assessed the risk as higher than official predictions. For academics with CoI, the odds of a higher risk assessment were 5.8 times greater than those made by academics without CoI (Wald p value=0.009). One in two academics commenting on the use of neuraminidase inhibitors or vaccine had CoI. The odds of CoI in academics promoting the use of neuraminidase inhibitors were 8.4 times greater than for academics not commenting on their use (Fisher's exact p=0.005).
Conclusions There is evidence of CoI among academics providing media commentary during the early H1N1 pandemic. Heightened risk assessments, combined with advocacy for pharmaceutical products to counter this risk, may lead to increased public anxiety and demand. Academics should declare, and journalists report, relevant CoI for media interviews.