Faster FDA Cures
Whoever controls Congress next year, the Food and Drug Administration is sure to be a political battleground. The controversial Prescription Drug User Fee Act of 1992 is scheduled for reauthorization, and the conventional political wisdom holds that the FDA is too "cozy" with Big Pharma and thus overeager to rubber-stamp dangerous new drugs.
So allow us to draw attention to an important and undernoticed study, "Assessing the Safety and Efficacy of the FDA," published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Its surprising conclusion is that the FDA does a pretty good job managing "the central speed-safety trade-off" involved in drug approvals -- and might even do well to move faster.
The authors looked at 662 drugs approved between 1979 and 2002, a period that included the passage of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act that allowed drug companies to help fund the FDA budget in exchange for faster reviews. They found that the resulting modest gains in drug review times have produced unambiguous public benefits.
In monetary terms, the authors estimate that the law improved consumer welfare by as much as $19 billion. But more importantly, they found that more rapid access to beneficial drugs saved between 180,000 and 310,000 "life-years." By contrast, assuming that every risky drug withdrawn in that period was the fault of the Prescription Drug User Fee Act produces an upper-bound estimate of only 56,000 life-years lost.
This study deserves a lot more attention than it's been getting, since the Washington debate is dominated by bad ideas about how to make FDA regulation much more onerous. In particular, a recent report from the National Academy of Science's Institute of Medicine (IOM) is being spun as evidence that the FDA is somehow "broken" and in need of fundamental reform.
We've looked at the IOM report in detail, and it's hardly as damning of the FDA as media reports suggest. For example, the report explicitly rejects the idea that high-profile drug withdrawals -- such as Vioxx -- "represent de facto failures of the drug safety regulatory system. . . This is not so." The IOM also rejects the basic idea behind legislation sponsored by Senators Chuck Grassley and Chris Dodd that the FDA should have a drug safety office separate from the office that approves drugs in the first place: "Risk and benefit cannot be considered in isolation from one another."
But despite these sensible observations, the IOM still wants more regulation. Among its recommendations are vastly increased levels of post-approval safety monitoring. That might make sense if the goal is making regulators comfortable with the idea of approving drugs more quickly. But that doesn't appear to be what the IOM and its cheering section want.
The IOM also proposes draconian restrictions on new-drug advertising and tighter conflict-of-interest standards for FDA advisory panel members. This despite the fact that the most qualified scientists and doctors have substantial sources of private income, and despite a study by the Naderite Public Citizen group that failed to find one instance of a panel recommendation that would have changed if allegedly conflicted members had been excluded.
Most fundamentally, the IOM presents little evidence that there is even a problem to remedy. By contrast, the National Bureau authors at least attempt to put some real facts on the table. They note that the absence of other attempts at hard, quantitative analysis in the great FDA debate is "somewhat paradoxical, since despite the agency's strict adherence to evidence-based evaluation of products overseen, there is less evidence on its own safety and efficacy. Put differently, no product application would pass the FDA approval process with the quality and type of evidence that currently exists for evaluating the FDA policies themselves."
The upshot of the economists' report is that the 1992 Prescription Drug User Fee Act deserves reauthorization. But the evidence also suggests Congress should probably be looking for other ways to make FDA approvals still faster. Despite the high-profile Vioxx panic, the FDA is far more likely to kill by depriving you of a drug than allowing you to take a dangerous one.