The Italian's Job

Mar 01, 2012

Some sly smiles flickered across the lips of the veterans of European pharmaceutical affairs last year, when it started to look as if an Italian was going to be put in charge of the European Medicines Agency. Those with long memories nudged one another knowingly, in complicit acknowledgement that the last Italian in such a distinguished role wound up in prison after being convicted on charges of massive and systematic corruption.

Guido Rasi, who took over as executive director of the EMA in November 2011, has many challenges ahead of him. And one of them is escaping from under the shadow cast by Duilio Poggiolini. As they like to say in serialized romantic fiction, new (or in this case, young!) readers start here. Poggiolini was, like Rasi, head of the Italian medicines agency. Like Rasi, he was a distinguished physician and researcher. Like Rasi, he was a professor of microbiology. And, like Rasi, he was promoted to European stardom, as chairman of the EU's top body for drug authorizations (which, back in 1991, before the EMA existed, was the Committee for Proprietary Medicinal Products—now reborn as the CHMP within the EMA).

Unlike Rasi, Poggiolini was given a heavy jail sentence in 2000 for abusing his position and taking bribes in return for favorable decisions on pricing and authorization. Poggiolini's misdeeds, uncovered during a mani puliti—clean hands—investigation into an influential Masonic lodge, were on an epic scale. He had amassed cash, jewelry, gold, and works of art estimated at more than $150 million, stashed not just in Swiss bank accounts but even hidden in the sofas in his house in Naples—including gold rubles from the reign of Czar Nicolas II and South African Krugerrands. It took investigators 12 hours just to catalog the spoils stowed around the house. As if that were not enough of a record, Poggiolini was subsequently charged with delinquent management of Italy's blood transfusion services, and responsibility for thousands of cases of hepatitis C and HIV from contaminated blood.

Unlike Poggiolini, Rasi already has a profile for mani puliti. Rasi was appointed head of the Italian health agency in 2008 as as new broom after his predecessor, Nello Martini, was unseated in the course of an investigation into trafficking of influence. Rasi had been an advisor to the Italian agency for four years by then, but he had a reputation as an honest dealer—vitally important as Martini was facing trial on charges related to agency failures that allegedly put patient safety at risk. Under its new command, the agency recovered some of the credibility it had lost over yet another incident calling into question the probity of Italian officials. Rasi oversaw a restructuring of the agency designed to make it more efficient and improve drug registration times.

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