They say it's Sweden's silly season, a time when journalists are desperately seeking a new spin on a century-old story: the Nobel Prizes.
Last week, as luminaries gathered for Nobel Week in Stockholm, Radio Sweden reported a potential scandal surrounding the Physiology or Medicine prize. Allegations were swirling, the state-owned station said, that London-based drug manufacturer AstraZeneca, PLC, had, in essence, paid off members of the Nobel voting committee to help secure a win for Harald zur Hausen for his discovery that the human papilloma virus (HPV) causes cervical cancer. (HIV can increase the risk of HPV-related diseases, and zur Hausen shared the Nobel with two scientists who discovered HIV.)
The purported reason: AstraZeneca has a stake in an anti-HPV vaccine and so stood to make a bundle if the guy who discovered a use for it snagged the coveted prize and, with it, press coverage.
The alleged scandal was the talk of the Nobels and soon became fodder for a cadre of contrarians who, despite scads of hard scientific evidence, have insisted for years that HIV does not cause AIDS. Among them was journalist Celia Farber, who repeated the Nobel bribery rumor on the West Palm Beach, Fla.–based news site, Newsmax.com.
The allegations picked up steam when Swedish prosecutor, Christer van der Kwast, told the journal Dagens Medicin that he was probing whether there were any grounds for criminal charges. In a phone interview, van der Kwast told ScientificAmerican.com that he was conducting a "preliminary investigation," but officials from the Nobel Foundation and AstraZeneca said his office had not contacted them yet.
Michael Sohlman, executive director of the Nobel Foundation, chalked up the probe to an opportunity for the prosecutor to grab the spotlight. "How should I put it in diplomatic terms? [Van der Kwast] often appears in the media," Sohlman said. To wit: a recent Swedish television documentary took the prosecutor to task after a serial killer retracted his confession and appealed his conviction; some reports allege that van der Kwast had concealed evidence to win the case.
As for the Nobels, as scurrilous as the charges may sound, there is little evidence to support them. First off, AstraZeneca's ties to the anti-HPV vaccine are tenuous at best: In 2007 it purchased a company called MedImmune, which had developed the viruslike particle (VLP) technology licensed for use in Merck's Gardasil and GlaxoSmithKline's Cervarix vaccines -- both designed to prevent HPV infection. The technology, however, is not specific to HPV and companies are working to adapt VLPs and similar techniques for a variety of vaccines, including influenza.
There's no question that AstraZeneca profits from every sale; last year, it received $236 million in royalties for its worldwide licenses. But that is just a drop in the bucket for a company with $29.6 billion in annual revenues, according spokesperson Zhou Yi.
Then, there is the issue of the alleged financial incentives designed to sway two members of the 50-person Nobel Assembly at the Karolinska Institute (K.I.) in Stockholm, whose votes decide the winner of the physiology or medicine prize. Bertil Fredholm, a pharmacologist at Karolinska and chairman of the five-person Nobel Committee that produces reports on Nobel candidates, told Scientific American that AstraZeneca paid him about $1,400 in 2006. The money was for work he did in his lab on cell-surface proteins that respond to compounds known as purines. These proteins -- known as receptors -- are Fredholm's specialty, and he says 25 percent of the money was paid in taxes, 36 percent was taken by Karolinska as overhead, and the remainder went into his lab's research budget.
The second assembly member accused of being paid off is Bo Angelin, a metabolism expert at Karolinska and a member of AstraZeneca's board of directors since July 25 of last year. According to the company's 2007 annual report, he received about $30,000 in compensation last year—the going rate for five months of service as a nonexecutive member of the board. The report states that Angelin was selected for his scientific expertise and serves on the company's science committee, where he helps assess the "quality, integrity and competitiveness" of research activities. He is not, however, "expected to review individual research or licensing projects."
Financial relationships are hardly uncommon among academics in the medical sciences. The key is whether these ties are properly disclosed, and Hans Jörnvall, secretary of the Nobel assembly, says they were in these instances. "The major links to AstraZeneca of some members were known," Jörnvall told ScientificAmerican.com in an e-mail, "and we saw no link or hindrance from that to any of the voting. Nothing subsequently discussed has changed our integrity at that moment or our depth of investigation of the discoveries honored."
According to Jörnvall, even if Angelin and Fredholm's work was a conflict, neither were likely to have been swayed to vote for zur Hausen because they did not know AstraZeneca had a connection to the anti-HPV vaccine. He also dismissed a separate allegation that AstraZeneca's sponsorship of Nobel Foundation spin-off companies—Nobel Media and Nobel Web—had any connection with the prize-selecting work. The three-year sponsorship, announced in November, provides support for lectures and educational Web site content as well as television documentaries about Nobel laureates in Physiology or Medicine. (AstraZeneca would not disclose how much money it contributes, and the Nobel Foundation said its media companies do not provide a breakdown of individual sponsorships.)
Jörnvall says the allegations were blown way out of proportion, but he doesn't blame the press for reporting on them. "Generally, we are very happy with the media," but this time, he says, "They were largely underinformed."