By Robert GoldbergOctober 16, 2014 | 8:30pm
How the feds block Ebola cures
We have technology to potentially control Ebola and other viral outbreaks today. But the federal bureaucracy refuses to catch up with 21st-century science.
For example, diagnostic startup Nanobiosym has an iPhone-sized device that can accurately detect Ebola and other infectious diseases in less than an hour.
Two other companies, Synthetic Genomics and Novartis, have the capacity to create synthetic vaccine viruses for influenza and other infectious diseases in only four days. Both firms can also share data about outbreaks instantaneously and make real-time, geographically specific diagnosis and vaccine production possible.
These companies could start producing Ebola vaccine/treatments tomorrow — except that the Food and Drug Administration’s insistence on randomized studies and endless demands for more data means firms have to spend millions on paperwork instead of producing medicines.
And for every small company drained by such tactics, many others conclude it’s not even worth trying.
These advances aren’t available because the FDA is using 19th-century science to decide which medical technologies should be used in the 21st century.
Two years after 9/11, Congress created Project Bioshield to speed up the commercialization of vaccines, drugs and diagnostics. A key part of the plan: Get the FDA to evaluate innovations quickly by using the same scientific advances that were used to discover them.
The agency balked.
Pandemic vaccines and drugs don’t move through the FDA approval process faster. Instead, drug- and device-development times actually increased more than 70 percent over the past decade because the FDA keeps demanding more studies and more data using outdated techniques.
And, no, the FDA is not using the best science to ensure safety. Time and again, it has waived regulations when politically expedient.
Back in 1984, at the start of the AIDS epidemic, the FDA claimed that reviewing HIV treatments would take at least six to eight years.
Only after loud, large and sustained demonstrations did it state that new AIDS drugs could be OK’d in two years or less and that most people who wanted to try them could. Millions of lives were saved as a result.
In 2008, it took Synthetic Genomics scientists a month to sequence the genes of every strain of the meningitis virus and engineer a vaccine that protects against them all. In Europe, Canada and Australia, the vaccine was approved for use in children (the group most likely to get meningitis and die from it) in 2010.
But the FDA demanded another study in the United States. Only after meningitis hit Princeton University and UC-Santa Cruz this year did the agency allow the vaccine to be imported and given to students on both campuses.
And the agency still hasn’t approved its general use.
Ebola is the same story. Take ZMapp, a combination of antibodies designed to block the virus from replicating.
Citing safety concerns, the FDA ordered the drug’s maker, Mapp Biopharmaceutical, to stop testing in July — just days before the Ebola outbreak. Now, of course, the FDA is letting people use it.
The same goes for an anti-viral drug (TMK-Ebola) made by Tekmira Pharmaceuticals. The FDA suspended research in January because of safety concerns. It changed course only after Ebola killed thousands.
Part of the problem: FDA scientists receive no reward for approving breakthroughs, but suffer public anger if but one person dies because a drug is misused. The price we pay for this culture of caution rises every day.
Africa will have to spend billions to treat those infected, rebuild health systems and bury the dead. Here at home, public officials find themselves a step behind Ebola.
As they lose our confidence in their ability to respond to biological threats, they blame the Ebola crisis on — what else — budget cuts.
Asked why there is no Ebola vaccine, National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins claimed we’d have one if not for NIH budget cuts. Nonsense: NIH funding for infectious diseases has doubled since 2001. But in 13 years, it developed three (ineffective) vaccines.
Nobel Laureate microbiologist Joshua Lederberg noted, “The single biggest threat to man’s continued dominance on the planet is a virus.” The second-biggest threat: a federal culture that rewards the delay of medical progress.
Ultimately, Congress must change the FDA’s mission and bureaucratic culture. Reviewers shouldn’t be allowed to use science to keep new technologies from doctors and patients.
We must force the FDA to focus on accelerating innovation and stop “protecting” us to death.