Latest Drugwonks' Blog
A consortium including European universities and medical groups plans to give experimental drugs to West African Ebola patients without assigning some to a placebo group, touching off an intense trans-Atlantic quarrel over what is ethical and effective in treating the virus.
Academics and medical groups in the U.K. and France, such as Oxford University, the Wellcome Trust, Doctors Without Borders and Institut Pasteur of France, have decided to give the drugs to sick African patients without randomly assigning other patients to a control group not getting the medicines. They say that in a ghastly epidemic, it is unethical to hold back treatment from anyone.
That has put them at odds with senior U.S. officials at the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Luciana L. Borio, FDA assistant commissioner for counterterrorism and emerging threats, told public-health officials at the World Health Organization in Geneva this month she was extremely concerned by the plans to give the medicines to patients without better evidence they work and aren’t highly toxic. “This is too urgent an issue for us not to start out with what we know is scientifically best,” said Dr. Borio. “The fastest and most definitive way to get answers about what are the best products is a randomized clinical trial.”
What crap. Randomized trials are not scientifically best, they are just tools no better -- probably worse -- than others to establish what works in who. Dr. Borio, spare us your holier than thou invocation of the randomize trial catechism...
Then there is this: The FDA yet again asked for more data on a drug for Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a fatal disease that kills people before they are 30. The agency doesn't think the measure of response is statistically precise enough...
After receiving criticism the agency assured the public: "The FDA also plans to hold an expert advisory committee “to gain advice from outside experts and interested stakeholders on the adequacy of the data to support approval, including the possibility of ‘accelerated approval’—a mechanism to approve drugs in particular situations prior to the availability of definitive evidence of effectiveness.”
The FDA had already received expert advice from Parent Project Muscular Dystrophy, an advocacy group founded by family members frustrated by a lack of research on Duchenne muscular dystrophy, (who) initiated and wrote a draft guidance for pharmaceutical companies trying to develop drugs to treat the fatal condition.
Per reporting in BioCentury, in the first lawsuit filed by an originator company over a biosimilars application, Amgen alleged that Sandoz has unlawfully refused to follow the patent resolution protocol laid out by the Biologics Price Competition and Innovation Act of 2009 (BPCIA).
The suit, filed in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, concerns Sandoz's application to market a biosimilar version of Amgen's Neupogen filgrastim G-CSF, a recombinant methionyl human granulocyte colony-stimulating factor. Under BPCIA, Sandoz was required to provide Amgen with its BLA and manufacturing information for the biosimilar within 20 days of FDA’s decision to accept the application for review.
According to Amgen, Sandoz failed to disclose this information, thus depriving Amgen of the opportunity to assess potential patent infringement claims and potentially seek an injunction to prevent Sandoz from commercializing its biosimilar candidate. Amgen is seeking restitution for unfair competition and an injunction to prevent Sandoz from commercializing the biosimilar filgrastim until Amgen is "restored to the position it would have been [in] had Defendents met their obligations under the BPCIA."
Amgen is also seeking an injunction to prevent Sandoz from advancing through FDA's approval process until the company has obtained permission from Amgen to use the filgrastim license. Additionally, Amgen is seeking a judgment of patent infringement for U.S. patent No. 6,162,427. The suit also demands a jury trial.
The bill would add Ebola to FDA’s priority review voucher program, which Congress first authorized in 2007 to promote the development of new treatments and vaccines for neglected tropical diseases. Under the program, a developer of a treatment for a qualifying tropical disease receives a voucher for FDA priority review to be used with a second product of its choice, or this voucher can be sold.
It's an interesting idea worthy of immediate discussion and debate.
I don't think I have ever seen or read a more misleading, deceptive and outright false description of the drug development process. The gist of the article is that surrogate endpoints are not only useless, they are false markers of effectiveness that drug companies use to get worthless but profitable meds approved. Not suprisingly, a lot of so-called health care reporters have lauded MSJ piece as extraordinary journalism. Which just goes to show you that facts need not get in the way of a good story.
But for those who still care about facts, here they are:
Just this weekend at an educational forum about lymphoma, a well- respected hematologist-oncologist from a major medical center – not a drug company – supported the new FDA Breakthrough designation to approve drugs with significant data after phase 2 clinical trials. He says drugs approved on PH 2 data are now helping people with lymphoma. Conversely he notes that despite powerful PH 2 data for Gleevec, the FDA required an additional three years for Ph 3 data. He says, "A significant number of patients died during that period."
Let me put it this way: In short, the article is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the clinical trial process, confuses overall survival with the impact on life expectancy and concludes that what we need is to expose more people with incurable diseases to interminable waits that are a prolonged death sentence.
1. We are using surrogate endpoints to expedite Ebola treatments. We used them for HIV, Hepatitis C, heart disease, dozens of orphan drugs. The results: faster access, more lives saved. Would the authors oppose using surrogate endpoints — measures of disease progression used to estimate treatment response — for dying Ebola patients. Surrogate is not code word for fake or ineffective. Quite the contrary.
2. They imply that cancer trials take shortcuts. In fact, cancer drugs take longer to approve than many other types of medicines. And only 7 percent of cancer drugs get approved. If companies were controlling the drug development process you would think they would have better success!
3. The authors should have asked why haven’t we made even more progress? They blame surrogate endpoints when in fact they are looking relying upon randomized clinical trials that ignore subgroups of patients, surrogate endpoints that establish linkages between genotype and phenotype and genetic variations. They ignore the rapid growth in targeted therapies and the significant gains in quality of life and life expectancy they yield
4. As a result, The authors claim the solution is more randomized controlled trials (RCTs) and (we assume) the number of people enrolled in each trial. Setting aside the obvious result: an increase in the cost and time required to develop and use new products, this approach is based on wishful thinking and a willful ignorance of the genetic, molecular and clinical diversity that, when ignored, turn RCTs into an tool that harms patients.
Specifically, RCTs are totally inadequate in evaluating treatments in cancer therapy where genomic analysis is uncovering the tremendous heterogeneity of what was previously considered one disease, eg, colon cancer. Genomic analysis of individual patient’s cancers is disclosing the large number of mutations, and thus targets, within one person. Developing RCTs for targeted therapies would likely be impossible and heartless for those waiting for effective treatments.
For example, Bruce Chabner gives the example of PLX4032 for the treatment of metastatic melanoma. That compound had an 81 percent response rate in patients with BRAF mutations in a phase 1 trial. Yet in a phase III study, patients were randomized to PLX4032 or dacarbazine, which has a 15% response rate. Dr. Chabner and others ask whether it is ethical to randomize patients to a drug that everyone knows won’t work if you know in advance which treatment will work for whom.
"If patients with incurable disease who have the right biomarker for response are informed of these impressive early results they will want and perhaps deserve access to the new drug and may not accept random assignment to a modestly effective and toxic standard agent." (N Engl J Med. 2011 Mar 24;364(12):1087-9. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1100548. Early accelerated approval for highly targeted cancer drugs.
Actual clinical RCTs are often statistically underpowered leading to inconclusive or incorrect results precisely because such studies are biased against prior knowledge. This is due in part to the effect of diminishing returns, because larger sample sizes are needed to achieve sufficient power capable of detecting the necessarily smaller positive effect sizes available as fitness improves.
5. Do potent cancer drugs carry risks? Of course. People also die surging surgery. We see the advertisements on TV - certain drugs for arthritis carry a risk of leukemia. But patients still want and need these potent drugs that change their quality of life! Drug approval is not always about survival, and it’s never risk free.
That's a nice narrative but it is history rewritten by those who want to claim that every company in the drug or vaccine business should cut their prices or give away their products.
It is true that when Edward R. Murrow asked Jonas Salk who owned the patent to the polio vaccine Salk said: “Well, the people, I would say. There is no patent. Could you patent the sun?"
Since then, Salk's statement has been use as trump card by individuals who claim that protecting the intellectual property of medicines is immoral or greedy. As an article in Slate notes: One critic of the big pharma called Salk “the foster parent of children around the world with no thought of the money he could make by withholding the vaccine from the children of the poor.”
Let's set aside the fact that solar energy companies have, in effect, patented the sun. There was a reason the Salk and the Sabin vaccines (more on that later) were not patented. The National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis was the beneficiary of a massive campaign to eradicate polio that makes the ALS Foundation Ice Bucket Challenge and Standup2Cancer efforts seem anemic (which they are NOT.)
"In the single year that the polio vaccine was unveiled, 80 million people donated money to the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which spearheaded the vaccine effort.... Schools, communities, and companies joined in a remarkable display of unity against the disease. Even Walt Disney’s cartoon characters contributed their talents, appearing in a film that adapted the Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs’ song “Heigh Ho” to an anti-polio ditty. In the 13 years leading up to the vaccine’s roll out, the budget of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis swelled from $3 million to $50 million.
In today's dollars that's about $500 million. The need for IP was removed because the passion capital had already been raised.
Further, it is true that a vaccine (an inactivated virus) does occur in nature as does the sun. But we patent both. How many solar energy companies have repurposed the sun's power with patented technology. A lot. And a lot more than vaccine companies have.
Then there is the myth that the Salk vaccine eliminated polio. In fact as Angela Matysiak noted in a review of a Salk biography:
"In 1959, epidemiologists reported findings on the pattern of the disease. These suggested a shift in incidence according to age, geography, and race. By 1960, less than one-third of the population under 40 years of age had received the full course of three doses of the Salk vaccine plus a booster. Most of those who had were white and from the middle and upper economic classes. The disease raged on in urban areas among African Americans and Puerto Ricans and in certain rural locales among Native Americans and members of isolated religious groups."
There were several reasons for the lag. Most important was the limited effectiveness of the Salk vaccine which was killed version of the polio virus required several shots. Matysiak oberves that Sabin put the point most succinctly: “The need for inoculating large amounts and the need for repetition are bad.” In contrast, an oral vaccine with a small dose of the attenuated versions of each of the three strains, administered once, would give lifelong immunity.
The Sabin vaccine was cheaper and easier to administer. But it became clear that both vaccines were needed because each protected certain subgroups that the other could not protect. The Salk vaccine could be used in people with compromised immune systems while the Sabin vaccine could not.
Both were required to eradicate polio. Ironically, the Sabin vaccine could be considered a me-too vaccine by the same ilk who claim patents don't matter.
And the same anti-patent crowd ignore another inconvenient truth: That Alexander Fleming, who discovered penicillin, regretted that he had not secure a patent because the lack of funding and private investment postponed it's development and commercialization by a decade and cost the lives of millions around the world.
Here’s the headline -- The GPhA now acknowledges the importance of differential nomenclature for biosimilars.
And now here’s the spin
The Generic Pharmaceutical Association (GPhA), out-flanked, out-thought, out of its league, and on the wrong side of history, has proposed a bizarre naming scheme for biosimilars – and shared it with the FDA last January. The agency agreed to the meeting on the condition that it was a ‘listening session’, meaning that the FDA would be unable to answer questions or expand on any issues beyond what is in the public domain and what they have stated in the published draft guidance documents.
Wink and a nod.
Officially, the GPhA requested the meeting to discuss the dialogue held at a recent World Health Organization (WHO) meeting regarding non-proprietary names of biosimilars and the possible addition of identifiers (specifically a three-letter random alphanumeric suffix) to the INNs of originator biologicals in order to name biosimilars.
The GPhA’s brainstorm is, rather than the WHO concept (also supported by the US The Pharmacopeia), attaching the company name as a suffix to the INN without changing the INN as a way to distinguish between products. They also proposed that this then also apply to the originator product, e.g. filgrastim Amgen.
Really? What happens when a biosimilar manufacturer merges with another firm or sells a product line to another company? And since when are drugs named “for a company.” That’s why FDA regulations stress names that are designed to avoid confusion. Using a “company suffix” makes things more confusing, not less. (For example, what happens when one company has more than one drug is any given therapeutic category?)
The GPhA stated that it does not disagree with ‘distinguishability’, but believes that this can be done without changing the INN.
That’s a start.
Without context, Sunshine Act's health care 'transparency' is useless
The biopharmaceutical industry is buying off America's doctors.
That's the bogus conclusion from some who have examined new data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The data set shows that from August to December of last year, drug and device manufacturers paid $3.5 billion to physicians and teaching hospitals.
Those payments were real, but there were no payoffs. The truth behind the numbers is that industry-physician collaboration is one of the main drivers of medical innovation today.
The purpose of the publication of this data is at least partly well-intentioned. As part of the "Physician Payments Sunshine" provision of the Affordable Care Act, it aims to increase transparency in the healthcare industry and help patients make better informed decisions.
The provision requires CMS to provide information on the financial relationship between doctors and the pharmaceutical industry. The data covers all payments and gifts provided to doctors and teaching hospitals from drug and medical device manufacturers. This includes meals, travel expenses, and speaking fees. Disclosure here is all to the good.
But for some, publication of the data was designed to produce exactly a "gotcha" moment: It was intended to embarrass the pharmaceutical industry and healthcare professionals, hopefully leading to a diminution of the supposedly undue influence the industry has on medical practice.
If that's the main impact of the release of the data, it will be doing more harm than good. First, the data reported by CMS is incomplete. Nearly 40 percent of the records aren't actually connected to a specific doctor or teaching hospital. Considering that the information is supposed to help empower patients, this gap is critical.
The data also come with little context. Industry-physician collaborations drive research and development in medicine. Pharmaceutical companies work together with doctors in clinical trials to create novel, lifesaving drugs. In fact, $1.5 billion of the payments reported by CMS were for research. These companies are merely reimbursing doctors for their professional services.
Biopharmaceutical companies and doctors bring separate skill sets and knowledge bases to the research table. Doctors working in the field have a better sense of what types of treatments patients need. And those in the biopharmaceutical industry are better versed in the drug development process. According to a recent survey, 94 percent of physicians say that the role of pharmaceutical and biotech firms in sponsoring clinical trials for new treatments is useful.
Thanks to these partnerships, there are currently 3,400 drugs being developed in the United States. These are drugs that will combat diseases like diabetes, heart disease and Parkinson's.
Currently, 93 medicines are undergoing clinical trials or awaiting FDA approval for Alzheimer's and dementia alone. For the more than 5 million Americans with Alzheimer's, one of these treatments could be the key to higher quality of life.
Physician-industry partnerships are also on the forefront of medical research. Take the collaboration between the University of Alabama at Birmingham and drug manufacturer rEVO Biologics. The two are conducting Phase III clinical trials for a therapy that could prevent dangerous pregnancy complications.
These collaborations are especially critical considering that federal research dollars are quickly drying up. In fiscal year 2013, burdened with the sequestration and budget cuts, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) - the country's main source of biomedical research funding - awarded 722 fewer grants than the previous year.
If the data released under the Sunshine Act continues to present the financial relationship between physicians and industry without this crucial background information, these collaborations could be in jeopardy. Doctors may end up resisting them in order to avoid sensationalist claims that their medical judgment is for sale to the highest bidder. Patients will be the real losers.
The Sunshine Act aims for transparency in healthcare, but fails to be transparent itself. CMS must present a more detailed view of the relationship between doctors and the biopharmaceutical industry. Doing so could even help patients choose doctors who are leading innovators in medicine.
Peter J. Pitts, a former Food and Drug Administration associate commissioner, is president of the Center for Medicine in the Public Interest.
I have previously asked Peter Bach to answer his own question in a different way: What if his idea of how high prices have to be winds up killing off drugs and vaccines that save peoples lives? What if the price he thinks is too high induces lots of companies to develop an Ebola vaccine. What is morally more reprehensible, drug prices higher than what Bach prefers or drug prices that he likes but kills off Ebola vaccine development? t I have asked Bach to discuss or debate this issue to no avail. . Perhaps Matt Herper could arrange for this to happen since Bach has been ducking me for months.
In this recent post Bach actually argues that prices that he regards as too high are bad for innovation. He never explains why. Instead he complains that there is too much innovation designed to treat rare diseases and specific cancer mutations. You tell me if he makes a strong case. Maybe I am missing something.
1. Bach – an oncologist – misrepresents the research activity of companies pursuing drugs to “target lung or and/or other cancers caused by an acquired genetic abnormality called the ALK rearrangement.” He claims that seven drugs targeting the ‘same cancer causing mechanism’ is too much.
In fact, there are at least seven ALK gene rearrangement variants that are involved in NSCLC alone. And he wants us to believe that one drug targeting ALK will do the job. In fact, most patients who have used the first 2-3 ALK inhibitors (let’s call them Bach’s Enough Bunch or BEBs) undergo a relapse…In particular, the central nervous system (CNS) is one of the most common sites of relapse in patients with ALK-positive NSCLC.
For this reason, most cancer doctors who understand the limits of the first generationof drugs welcome the development of new ALK inhibitors that have greater potency and different kinase selectivity compared with the BEBs.
Bach alludes to that fact that other cancers are caused by ALK mutations. Indeed, there are several. Genomic aberrations in ALK are involved in lymphoma, renal cell carcinoma, rhabdomyosarcoma, thyroid
carcinoma, colorectal cancer, and some rare melanomas.
2. His economic reasoning is circular when it’s not silly. He claims that there is a price high enough to induce companies for 2-3 companies to develop products, but not 7 or 8. Bach presumes that if the prices were at levels he deemed appropriate companies that would otherwise invest in such a small group of patients would invest in yet another small subgroup of patients, presumably at a price not too high, which would in turn lead to companies investing in other small groups of patients where the prices are lower than the ‘right ‘ number of drugs.
I defy Bach to could come up with one example – any example – of a pricing system that generates just the right amount of innovation while inducing and moving capital to other important medical condition. Can he show, for instance, that lower prices for drugs for Pompey’s disease (a rare pediatric condition) stimulated investment in Huntington’s disease or Ebola? Indeed, most orphan diseases are priced well above $100K a year. According to Bach, a lower price would only discourage companies that are developing medicines that are superfluous AND cause them to tackle another small disease group where prices are capped.
Failing logic and empirical evidence, Bach resorts to the use of a red herring: that drug prices are too high because they are lower elsewhere. He asserts, “When the FDA approved a drug this month” (called Ebriet for a previously incurable disease, idiopath pulmonary fibrosis or IPF) “Roche announced a $94K per year price tag, more than twice what the drug costs in Europe. Simple math – if they ever could achieve full market penetration Roche would make back their entire investment in a single year. “
Except it won’t. Because IPF also has several mutations involved. Only 10 percent of patients with the disease have the mutation Ebriet targets. According to Bach then, charging $46K per year for the drug is a sure fire way to induce the development of treatments for the 90 percent of patients that have one or more other mutations.
Let’s set aside the real value of a drug that delays the progression of a previously fatal and untreatable disease for a small and neglected group of patients as Bach does. Or that new cancer drugs and treatments for other rare diseases have saved more money and generated more life expectancy than the half-way or hopeless treatment they replaced. Those are two very good reasons why a new medicine should have a high price.
And let’s set aside the facts that lay waste to his unstated conclusion: the high drug prices are driving American health care spending into bankruptcy. In fact, apart from the value they generate and money they save, drug costs for such illnesses are less than 2 percent of total health care spending and have been that level for decades. Let’s ignore all that, as does Bach. How about applying his Euro-pricing to what he makes or Memorial Sloan Kettering where Bach works. MSKCC generates about $3 billion a year in revenue. It pays 6 executives in excess of $1 million a year. Doctors and hospitals also cost more than twice that they do in Europe. MSKCC is probably even more.
When Bach proposes the same cut in price for MSKCC I can take his conviction about drug prices seriously. He will still be misguided or misleading. And I bet he will still be afraid to debate me.
From the pages of the Morning Consult.
Stepping Towards Failure
By Robert Popovian
As healthcare professionals, we should always do what is best for the patient. This includes practicing evidence-based medicine. Unfortunately a growing practice of the healthcare ecosystem ignores this principle: the institution of payer policies that try and curb pharmaceutical utilization. One such policy is “Fail First” or “Step Therapy”. This “utilization management” strategy is when a payer, often a Pharmacy Benefit Manager, decides that a patient must first try and fail on one or more medicines that their physician did not select. This can mean forcing the patient to take a drug that had been previously tried – and failed to work – or even mean a patient is forced by the payer to take a medicine that does not have an FDA indication for their disease. The patient suffers through weeks, if not months, of inappropriate therapies all in the name of cost-effectiveness. There are instances when this type of policy is truly cost saving such as when an AB rated generic is required first, and greater use of real world evidence including the patient’s treatment history could target the right patient for this type of intervention, but applying the policy broadly means that patients needlessly experience substandard treatment.
Today, 70 percent of employer-sponsored insurance plans use this approach to control medication costs. Payers assert that by mandating physicians to follow a certain prescribing algorithm that the “per member per month” pharmacy costs will be lowered. However, payers don’t consider whether it will also result in overall reductions in healthcare costs or an improvement in patient outcomes or even long term savings in pharmacy expenditures. In addition, no consideration is given to the indirect costs incurred by physicians who now have to shuffle patients in and out of their offices for additional visits to ensure that they will eventually get to use the appropriate drug the physician had selected for them in the first place.
More importantly, payers don’t define what “failure” means for a patient. Is “failure” simply a lack of efficacy of the payer’s drug choice? Is “failure” a hospitalization incurred because of the payer’s pre-determined algorithm? Or worse, is “failure” a patient who is now seriously ill because they had to endure an ineffective therapy? As Dr. Brenda Motheral pointed out in her findings published in The American Journal of Managed Care, 17 percent of patients on step therapy algorithms end up without any treatments as they get left behind in the administrative maze.
Another interesting point is that when patients reach the zenith of their fail first/step therapy regimen and have the opportunity to utilize the drug that was chosen initially by their provider, they are hit with significant out-of-pocket costs because such medications are usually in higher copay or co-insurance tiers. So not only did the patients have to endure months of ineffective or at times hazardous therapy, they now have the burden of paying higher out-of-pocket costs.
Remarkably, there is absolutely no evidence that fail first/step therapy provides a reduction in overall healthcare costs and improvements in patient outcomes short or long term. There is no empirical data published in peer reviewed journals that demonstrates definitively that there are both health benefits and cost savings from these policies. In fact, despite evidence of potential harm (i.e., patients ending up on no therapy), payers have not been required, nor have they taken the initiative, to demonstrate that fail first/step therapy policies are safe for patients. Payers quite often and at times rightfully ask biopharmaceutical companies to provide safety and efficacy data or ever-expanding pharmacoeconomic product dossiers for their products. Payers also demand that physicians justify every single intervention they utilize through mounds of paperwork. Isn’t it time to make payers provide a similar level of evidence for their policies?
As Dr. Motheral pointed out, “Adoption of step therapy is quickly outpacing decision makers’ understanding of the clinical, humanistic, and economic value of these programs.” In other words, we have no idea what the outcomes are but payers continue to demand patients should trust their decisions rather than those of their own doctors.
Utilization management is an important part of ensuring that this country’s significant investment in healthcare is used efficiently. However, policies without clear clinical rationale that achieve short term cost savings at the expense of long term health isn’t efficient. Let’s use the growing wealth of real world patient experience data to ensure the right people get the right treatment as quickly as possible, and that money isn’t wasted in the wrong places. This should apply not just to medicines but other parts of the healthcare system.
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.