Pfizer-employed veterinarian requests apology for conflict of interest allegations
COLUMBIA, 7/12/11 (Beat Byte) -- Timeline issues and extreme absenteeism are among reasons Columbia-Boone County Board of Health (BOH) member Nathan Voris, DVM. MBA said he has no conflict of interest as a chief architect of Columbia's new feral cat ordinance and employee of Pfizer Animal Health, which supplies tests and vaccines mandated by the ordinance.
Voris contacted the Heart Beat after our July 9 story about the conflict of interest, noting that he had not received our attempts to contact him via email.
"In the April 8, 2010 minutes you will find the memo 'Animal Control Ordinance Suggestions' approved by the BOH and forwarded to both the City Council and the Boone County Commission," Voris emailed. "Since I was not yet employed by Pfizer, how could a conflict of interest have been present? Since there was clearly no conflict of interest present, how could you question my ethics? For this, I humbly ask for your apology and public correction of the record."
Voris took a position with Pfizer Animal Health on July 12, 2010, after 10 years at Equine Medical Services, a Columbia-based veterinary provider. Pfizer -- and a subsidiary the firm acquired last December, Synbiotics -- makes feline leukemia tests, feline immunodeficiency tests, and rabies vaccines, all required under the new ordinance.
The Board of Health's only veterinarian, Voris never publicly disclosed his employment with the pharmaceutical giant, although he said he discussed it privately with fellow board members "before the September 2010 meeting started."
"As far as I know, no one at Spay, Neuter, and Protect (SNAP) had this information," SNAP board member Christina McCullen told the Heart Beat.
SNAP opposed the ordinance, which regulates care of stray cats, joining a chorus of other opposing voices at last Tuesday's Columbia City Council meeting, during which Council members approved the law 4-2. "Even the appearance of this conflict of interest dirties the waters," McCullen explained.
Voris disputes that characterization. "I have lived in Columbia for nearly 20 years and served on the Board of Health for the last six," he explained. "I am very open about my employment, the organizations, committees, councils and commissions in which I participate."
All veterinarians would have similar conflicts of interest, Voris also noted. "How would any veterinarian be able to offer expert opinion or participate in animal control ordinance discussion or vote, without there being a conflict of interest as you define the term?" Voris asked. "Would a veterinarian that administers the rabies vaccine or spays and neuters cats be equally unqualified for participation in these discussions as one who works for a company that produces supplies for such procedures? I think not."
Finally, Voris said he had few opportunities to influence debate over the ordinance regardless. Even though he chaired the Board of Health during 2010, he was absent from most of the meetings.
"I have not been a very reliable BOH meeting attendee since leaving practice, making only 2 of the 9 meetings...due to my work travel schedule," Voris told the Heart Beat. "My last meeting as chair -- and the last meeting I attended -- was December 9, 2010. During that meeting...no discussions nor actions arose concerning the feral cat provision."
Cats and complications
Voris' relationship with the feral cat ordinance has been complicated. He earlier opposed the ordinance on grounds that city government would be sanctioning an unhealthy situation: care and feeding of feral cats that can spread rabies and other sicknesses. His concerns were in line with a July 2008 Health Department legal review motivated by animal bites.
In a page-long September 2009 letter to fellow BOH members, Voris explained why his was the only "no" vote on a preliminary version of the ordinance. "I have repeatedly shared my concerns about free-roaming cats and their higher rate of rabies infection," Voris wrote, along with nearly a dozen points, statistics, and reports that supported his position. "I feel it is my duty as a veterinarian to share the attached information in the form of a report rather than depending on meeting minutes...to piece together my objections to the city's sanctioning of feral cat management."
After Boone County Circuit Judge Jodie Asel dismissed a 2009 case against a feral cat caretaker, Voris said he changed his mind. The ruling showed "there were no provisions in the animal control ordinance governing how feral cats should be handled, as the growing public health issue they are becoming, other than Animal Control rounding them up, an option not currently feasible," Voris said.
At last Tuesday's City Council meeting, Voris repeated many of his concerns, urging Council members to support better funding for animal control, a haphazardly-situated public function to which neither city nor county governments pay serious attention, instead relying on non-profit groups like SNAP and the Central Missouri Humane Society.
Admirable, but ineffective
On Tuesday, Voris returned to the debate, urging Council members to pass the feral cat ordinance. He also never disclosed his employment with Pfizer.
Instead, he explained to Councilwoman Barbara Hoppe the advantages of new feline leukemia and immunodeficiency tests that don't have false positive and false negative results -- tests Pfizer Animal Health sells in nearly a dozen varieties. Voris also testified that Trap, Neuter, and Return (TNR) -- an alternative feral cat care management method that doesn't involve the mandated tests -- "while admirable," doesn't work. Finally, he gave extensive testimony to Councilwoman Helen Anthony emphasizing the dangers of feline leukemia.
In an email with links and attachments, Voris said his positions are justified regardless of his employer.
"A simple review of the public record would have illustrated there was never a conflict of interest behind my placing emphasis on what I considered very important facts concerning both animal welfare and public health," he told the Heart Beat. "It is clear that my actions were based solely on science and facts, and not on any bogus conflict."