A Tangled Web of Self-Interest

4/21/10

Boy, it’s good to be here, invading a tiny corner of cyberspace as the new life sciences columnist for Xconomy.

It is a journalist’s dream to be given free rein, and unlimited real estate, to write about the subjects she thinks matter. As a newspaper reporter (more about me here) the pressure to keep stories short was frustrating. It was hard to land an article on the front page. With The Pulse, I’m glad to be free from these constraints, but I face a different predicament: I know I’m just a click away from oblivion. The world doesn’t need another pundit. So I’ll try my best to use this soapbox wisely. And I really want this to be interactive so please write to me (at swestphal@xconomy.com) or post below with feedback, tips, and comments.

This is an interesting week to be launching my first column. Wall Street is again under scrutiny, thanks to the suit brought against Goldman Sachs by the Securities and Exchange Commission. At the center of the clash are complex debt structures (“collateralized debt obligations”—who comes up with those names?) that were concocted by Goldman, among other players, and sold as novel products to investors. It allegedly wasn’t completely transparent how these products were built, but that didn’t seem to matter. People trusted people. A product essentially set to fail was sold to the public, or so we’re told.

From my financially unsophisticated 10-mile view, I wonder: how could something like this happen? How could companies sell to the public a product that they knew would likely fail?

Come to think of it, that’s not too dissimilar from the question posed in 2004 to Merck & Co. as it stood accused by thousands of patients of knowing about the deadly side effects of Vioxx years before it recalled the drug. (The company never accepted liability and settled in 2007 for $4.85 billion.) Similarly, Guidant, which was later acquired by Boston Scientific, fueled public outrage in 2005 for allegedly selling cardiac defibrillators that it knew might be defective (that suit was settled as well). There are plenty more examples like these. Even the Food and Drug Administration has at times faced this kind of scrutiny–it has been admonished for approving drugs and devices despite advice to the contrary due to safety red flags. When those products turn out to have serious side effects, the outcry begins. How could they, people ask. Isn’t the FDA here to protect us?

It’s always easy to look back. The prism of hindsight splits the world into us versus them, the righteous and the crooked, but that’s an illusion. The real question is, … Next Page »

Sylvia Pagán Westphal is Xconomy's life sciences columnist. You can reach her at swestphal@xconomy.com or you can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sylviawestphal. Visit http://www.xconomy.com/author/swestphal/ for Sylvia's full bio and disclosures. Follow @

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