One of the more interesting exercises conducted by drugmakers involves monitoring what is written about their products on the Internet. This is no easy task, given the enormous volume of verbiage. To cope, assorted experts are retained, but the actual inner workings of such efforts rarely come to light. AstraZeneca, however, is encountering an embarassing moment. The drugmaker appears to have hiredvFluence Interactive, which uses proprietary data mining tools and analytics to keep tabs on "relevant and influential content."
Late last week, vFluence posted an item claiming its site was hacked by an unnamed blogger (see this), which came in apparent response to a post on 'Is Something Not Quite Right With Stan - A Mental Health Blog.' This particular site (see here) accessed reports written by vFluence concerning AstraZeneca and its Seroquel antipsychotic, which is the subject of thousands of lawsuits charging the drugmaker with failing to disclose diabetes risks associated with the pill. AstraZeneca, by the way, just paid a $520 million fine for off-label marketing (see here).
The 'Stan' site, as you can see, contains a few summaries of what some blogs, such as PharmaGossip, have written about Seroquel. And the revelation has prompted a few bloggers to criticize AstraZeneca for monitoring various blogs. Meanwhile, 'Stan' denies any hacking: "They left their site door wide open to public viewing, and I simply peered in..." The link 'Stan' provides, however, is now disabled.
vFluence is run by Jay Byrne, who previously headed public affairs at Monsanto (see here) and worked for the US Agency for International Development. For his part, Byrne tells us that 'Stan' gained access to the site, not by merely clicking on readily available links, but entered through a data entry portal by repeatedly attempting to log in with passcodes and typing in code. "You can argue about the definition of hacking, but he didn't just click on a link," says Byrne, who declined to confirm that AstraZeneca is a client. "And it's odd to me that people who say things in the public realm should take offense that anyone is paying attention. Everyone in health care should be aware and pay attention to what's being said about them online. We're not going after anyone's personal information."
Separately, Byrne also post an item in which he maintains drugmakers "seek to responsibly use (online) data to (sic) in best interests of the patient communities they serve." An AstraZeneca spokesman declined to say anything specific about vFluence, but did write that "we believe it is important to read what is openly written about the business and our medicines to better understand issues that are important to journalists, bloggers and the public."
In other words, having access to as much information as possible. This should not come as a surprise. Companies of all stripes regularly engage in what is called business intelligence, which includes tracking what is written on the Internet. Whether this episode involved hacking is another matter. Interestingly, though, the drugmaker's desire to have an opportunity to review relevant information about its medicines sounds like something that has come up in the litigation.