Alan Jones is no longer just Gloria, but Gloriana, the reigning queen of radio, and the Crikey Bird Watching Team is keeping an ear on what Australia’s most powerful shock jock has to say – and wondering where his sudden interest in pharmaceuticals came from.

Did anyone else notice the Parrot’s comment during his Sunday profile last week that the Telstra sponsorship deal for his program was “above the law”? We presume he meant above board – but what a slip.

Ever since Squawks for Seed, there is an automatic question mark over the many and varied opinions our feathered friend proffers and just what’s shaped them. There is a suspicion that he’s cut a deal and isn’t letting on.

That makes the Crikey Bird-Watching Team paranoid – and today’s subject matter does nothing to ease that paranoia.

Today we’re talking about the Parrot and drugs – not the wacky baccy chemical and organic leisure supplement style drugs that shock-jocks get so worried by, but the cost a motza marketed in all sorts of shady ways by even shadier multinational rip off merchants prescription drugs – for, of late, Gloria has been cawing about the benefits of one of these, the anti-leukaemia medication Glivec.

The Parrot wants Glivec made available on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme – and last month it looked as if he would get his way.

On September 10, the Prime Miniature was a guest in the aviary and announced Glivec would be made available to sufferers. As Parrot Droppings reported at the time, it was a very strange interview, as the Prime Miniature, not sure when the drug would be made available, was promptly told the date by Gloria. It looked as if there had been a kiss and make up since the famous harangue over respite care funding earlier this year – presumably facilitated by Tony O’Dreay, the PM’s popular press sec.

Then, at the beginning of the month, we got this:

“Well I can’t believe it would be intentional. But it appears as though the Government has perpetrated a gigantic fraud on the sufferers of chronic myeloid leukaemia.

“I have been at the Government for some time about making available to these people, what to them is a wonder drug, Glivec.

“Now the long and the short of it is, following considerable representations, on September 10 the Prime Minister appeared on my programme.

“And he said ‘I’m very pleased to tell you that later this morning Kay Patterson, the Health Minister, will be putting out a statement indicating that the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Council has recommended the listing of Glivec for the early stage of treatment, and that recommendation has been accepted by the Government.’

“Pretty straightforward language.

“Well, the Health Minister did put out a statement.

“Its opening paragraph said, ‘Sufferers of chronic myeloid leukaemia in the chronic phase of the disease will have access to Glivec on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from October 21, the Federal Minister for Health and Ageing Senator Kay Patterson announced today.’

“There were no ifs or buts. No qualifications.

“And I now discover that there are.

“Because now the Government is saying that they accepted the recommendations of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Advisory Committee, and that that committee advised that ‘the extended listing of Glivec should be limited to those patients who are unable to respond satisfactorily to the current standard of care, a drug called Interferon Alpha.’

“The Government are now saying that the Federal Government didn’t impose any rules on the listing of Glivec, the PBAC sets the prescribing restrictions, not the Government.

“And that ‘The Therapeutic Goods Administration which grants approval to market drugs in Australia based on consideration of a drug’s efficacy, safety and quality has not approved the use of Glivec as a first line therapy for sufferers of CML in the chronic phase of the disease.’

“Well that is the exact opposite of what the Prime Minister assured me on my programme.

“And the exact opposite of the very opening paragraph of the press release by the Health Minister, which on September 10 said ‘Sufferers of chronic myeloid leukaemia in the chronic phase of the disease will have access to Glivec on the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme from October 21, 2002.’

“No qualifications.

“The Government has got some answering to do.”

Since then, the Bird-Watching team has received some fascinating correspondence:

“It seems that the Parrot, if we are to believe him, knows more about chronic myeloid leukaemia and Glivec than all the other experts, and misunderstood the Prime Minister when Mr Howard tried to explain a highly technical issue to a dill.

“The US Food and Drug Administration in its letter of approval of Glivec*[known as Gleevec in the states], available here said:

‘This new drug application provides for the use of Gleevec (imatinib mesylate) 50 and 100 mg capsules for the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) in blast crisis, accelerated phase, or in chronic phase after failure of interferon-alpha therapy” There are no controlled trials demonstrating a clinical benefit, such as improvement in disease related symptoms or increased survival.’

“So, the FDA specifically pointed to the lack of controlled trials demonstrating a clinical benefit, (even though the research does show some promise), and imposed a condition that Glivec is indicated only after the failure of interferon. But what would they know, they are only some of the world’s top biotech researchers. What a pity they didn’t check with The Parrot first.”

Indeed. And, as a certain friend of Crikey says, that’s not all.

At this address the manufacturer of Glivec, Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, published a draft package insert that reads:

“INDICATIONS AND USAGE : GLEEVEC is indicated for the treatment of patients with chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) in blast crisis, accelerated phase, or in chronic phase after failure of interferon-alpha therapy.”

In other words, it’s not a miracle cure but a drug for use after failure of interferon-alpha therapy – and that’s exactly what the Government is saying.

And keeping it local, this is what Australian Prescriber magazine has had to say:

“Most patients have been followed up for less than six months so there are no long-term safety data about imatinib. There is also a possibility that drug resistance could develop. Further research is needed as it is not yet known whether or not the improvements in laboratory results will lead to better clinical outcomes for the patients.”

What does this mean? Easy. It means that most of what the Parrot’s had to say on the matter has been a load of guano.

So why has he been saying it? Who knows.

However, while we remain just a group of amateur ornithologists, a little bird has told us that Glivec would cost around $50,000 per patient per year. That’s a lot – and no doubt Novartis would appreciate it if a key opinion former like our Parrot helped persuade the Government it was worth it.

Indeed, it’s interesting to wonder what the appreciation might be worth if you were to be so crude to put a price tag on it.

From all of us at the bottom of the cage, until next time, goodbye.

The Crikey Bird Watching Team can be contacted at [email protected]

Peter Fray

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