Italians rally to condemn Nobel 'bribe' allegation: Professor rejects claim by civil servant that a pharmaceuticals firm 'bought' her 1986 prize for medicine

ITALIAN leaders rallied around Rita Levi-Montalcini, winner of the 1986 Nobel Prize for medicine and one of the country's most respected citizens, after allegations that her prize had been 'bought' by a pharmaceuticals company.

Yesterday newspapers said the allegation had been made to Naples magistrates by Duilio Poggiolini, head of the Health Ministry's pharmaceuticals section. Mr Poggiolini is suspected of being the key figure in a ring that took huge bribes for approving new pharmaceutical products or raising their prices.

He reportedly said the Italian Fidia company had spent 14bn lire ( pounds 5.6m) on Professor Levi-Montalcini's prize - part of it on funding her research and part to the Swedish committee which selects possible candidates. He said he was told this by Francesco Della Valle, Fidia's former chief executive.

The four Naples magistrates investigating what has become known as the 'pharmafraud' scandal yesterday declined to comment. But one said: 'We know something different and something more than what has appeared in the press.'

Mr Della Valle, Professor Levi- Montalcini and the Swedish committee rejected the claim. It was a 'shameful outrage' against Professor Levi-Montalcini, Mr Della Valle said. Professor Levi-Montalcini told La Repubblica: 'It's unheard of. I refuse even to deny a filthy trick like that. In any case, who in the world could possibly influence the Nobel committee?'

The reaction in Sweden was one of disbelief that anyone should take the allegation seriously. 'The mere fact that the charges emanate from Italy speaks for itself,' said a Swedish source. Margareta Petrini, Secretary to the Nobel assembly at the Karolinska Institute, said: 'Of course . . . things like that do not occur. It's absolutely obvious that it isn't true. It's so obvious it isn't true that we don't even feel the need to comment on it.'

Competence to submit nominations for the prize is enjoyed by the Nobel Assembly - the 50 medical professors of the Karolinska Institute, medical members of the Swedish Academy of Science, their colleagues in the other Nordic countries, and previous laureates. Professor Levi-Montalcini was awarded the prize, worth dollars 290,000 at the time, with the American Stanley Cohen for research on the 'nerve-growth factor'.

President Oscar Luigi Scalfaro telephoned Professor Levi-Montalcini to express solidarity. Speakers of the two houses of parliament and the minister for research all declared themselves appalled at the mud that was being thrown at one of Italy's most illustrious scientists and with it the country's whole scientific establishment.

The episode again raises the problem of 'confessions' by Mafia pentiti or by people accused in corruption scandals. These are often leaked to the press before they can be verified or the people concerned brought to court. There is a big danger of lies told out of malice, for revenge or a variety of other reasons.

Mr Poggiolini has been in preventive detention in Naples's infamous Poggioreale jail since September and is reportedly desperate to get out. Since the end of January he has reportedly been 'telling all', not only about his own corruption but also about the pharmaceuticals industry in general. He has accused numerous heads of the industry of bribery; four have been arrested as a result and one more is being sought.

Two years after the start of corruption investigations - the anniversary of the arrest of the first suspect, the Milan Socialist politician Mario Chiesa falls tomorrow - the number of people under investigation has risen to 6,059, of whom 438 are MPs.

Nearly 3,000 people have been, or still are, in preventive detention. But only a handful have been tried and convicted.

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