Category Archives: We’re In the News

How Fauci and the NIH Got Ahead of the FDA and CDC in Backing Boosters

Sarah Jane Tribble and Arthur Allen, KHN: September 16, 2021


In January — long before the first jabs of covid-19 vaccine were even available to most Americans — scientists working under Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases were already thinking about potential booster shots.

A month later, they organized an international group of epidemiologists, virologists and biostatisticians to track and sequence covid variants. They called the elite group SAVE, or SARS-Cov-2 Variant Testing Pipeline. And by the end of March, the scientists at NIAID were experimenting with monkeys and reviewing early data from humans showing that booster shots provided a rapid increase in protective antibodies — even against dangerous variants.

Fauci, whose team has closely tracked research from Israel, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, said in an exclusive interview with KHN on Wednesday that “there’s very little doubt that the boosters will be beneficial.” But, he emphasized, the official process, which includes reviews by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needs to take place first.

“If they say, ‘We don’t think there’s enough data to do a booster,’ then so be it,” Fauci said. “I think that would be a mistake, to be honest with you.”

The support for an extra dose of covid vaccine clearly emerged, at least in part, from an NIH research dynamo, built by Fauci, that for months has been getting intricate real-time data about covid variants and how they respond to vaccine-produced immunity. The FDA and CDC were seeing much of the same data, but as regulatory agencies, they were more cautious. The FDA, in particular, won’t rule on a product until the company making it submits extensive data. And its officials are gimlet-eyed reviewers of such studies.

On boosters, Americans have heard conflicting messages from various parts of the U.S. government. Yet, Fauci said, “there is less disagreement and conflicts than seem to get out into the tweetosphere.” He ticked off a number of prominent scientists in the field — including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and covid vaccine inventor Barney Graham — who were on board with his position. All but Graham are members of the White House covid task force.

Another task force member, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, said her agency was tracking vaccine effectiveness and “we’re starting to see some waning in terms of infections that foreshadows what we may be seeing soon in regard to hospitalizations and severe disease.” As to when so-called boosters should start, she told PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, “I’m not going to get ahead of the FDA’s process.”

Differences in the scientific community are likely to be voiced Friday when the FDA’s vaccine advisory board meets to review Pfizer-BioNTech’s request for approval of a third shot. Indeed, even the FDA’s official briefing paper before the meeting expressed skepticism. “Overall,” agency officials noted, “data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death.” The agency also stated that it’s unclear whether an additional shot might increase the risk of myocarditis, which has been reported, particularly in young men, following the second Pfizer and Moderna shots.

Part of the disagreement arose because President Joe Biden had announced that Americans could get a booster as soon as Sept. 20, a date Fauci and colleagues had suggested to him as practical and optimal in one of their frequent meetings just days before — though he cautioned that boosters would need CDC and FDA approval.

Now it appears that that decision and the timing rest with the FDA, which is the normal procedure for new uses of vaccines or drugs. And Fauci said he respects that process — but he thinks it should come as quickly as possible. “If you’re doing it because you want to prevent people from getting sick, then the sooner you do it, the better,” Fauci said.

Researchers at the NIH typically focus on early-stage drug development, asking how a virus infects and testing ways to treat the infection. The job of reviewing and approving a drug or vaccine for public use is “just not how the NIH was set up. NIH does relatively little research on actual products,” said Diana Zuckerman, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C.

“It’s no secret that FDA doesn’t have the disease experts in the way that the NIH does,” Zuckerman said. “And it’s no secret that the NIH doesn’t have the experts in analyzing industry data.”

‘Data in Spades’

Yet no other infectious disease expert in any branch of the U.S. government has Fauci’s influence. And while other scientific leaders support boosters, many scientists believe Fauci and his colleagues at the NIAID — some of the world’s leaders in immunology and vaccinology, men and women in daily contact with their foreign peers and their research findings — are leading the charge.

Fauci was hard-pressed to give exact dates for when his thinking turned on the need for boosters. The past 18 months are a blur, he said. But “there’s very little doubt that the boosters will be beneficial. The Israelis already have that data in spades. They boost, they get an increase by tenfold in the protection against infection and severe disease.”

In July, Israel, which started vaccinating its population early and used only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, began reporting severe breakthrough cases in previously vaccinated elderly people. Israel’s Ministry of Health announced boosters July 29. Fauci noted that Israel and — to a lesser extent — the U.K. were about a month and a half ahead of the U.S. at every stage of dealing with covid.

And once Israel had boosted its population, the Israeli scientists showed their NIH counterparts, hospitalizations of previously vaccinated people, which had been rising, dropped dramatically. Emerging evidence suggests boosters make people far less likely to transmit the virus to others, an important added benefit.

To be sure, members of the White House covid response team — including Fauci and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler — had begun preparing a timeline for boosters months earlier. Kessler, speaking to Congress in May, said that it was unclear then whether the boosters would be needed but that the U.S. had the money to purchase them and ensure they were free.

Fauci explained that “practically speaking, the earliest we could do it would be the third week in September. Hence the date of the week of September the 20th was chosen.” The hope was that would give regulators enough time. The FDA’s advisory board meeting Friday is set to be followed next week by a gathering of the CDC’s immunization advisory committee, which offers recommendations for vaccine use that can lead to legal mandates.

[….]

Real-Time Science

Scientists tracking the coronavirus are swimming in data. Hundreds of covid studies are published or released onto pre-publication servers every day. Scientists also share their findings on group email lists and in Zoom meetings every week — and on Twitter and in news interviews.

Kessler, chief science officer of the White House covid response team, said the case for boosters is “rooted in NIH science” but includes data from Israel, the Mayo Clinic, the pharmaceutical companies and elsewhere.

As Fauci put it: “Every 15 minutes, a pre-print server comes out with something I don’t know.”

The SAVE group, active since February, was organized by NIH officials who in normal times track influenza epidemics. The 60 to 70 scientists are mostly from U.S. agencies such as the NIH, CDC, FDA and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, but also from other countries, including Israel and the Netherlands.

“This is very much the basic scientists who are in the weeds trying to figure things out,” said Dr. Daniel Douek, chief of the human immunology section within NIAID.

[….]

Dr. Robert Seder, an NIH senior investigator, was in a group testing the booster theory long before America’s “Summer of Delta.” The researchers injected rhesus macaque monkeys with the Moderna vaccine for the “express purpose of looking at the immune responses over a long period of time.”

“Are they durable? And would you need to boost?” Seder said.

Matthew Frieman, a participant and associate professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the data makes it clear that the time for boosters is approaching. Biden’s booster announcement “may have gotten ahead of the game, but the trajectory is pointing toward the need for boosters,” Frieman said. “The level of antibody you need to protect against delta is higher because it replicates faster.”

[….]

Monday, an international group of scientists led by Dr. Philip Krause, deputy chief of the FDA’s vaccine regulation office, and including his boss, Dr. Marion Gruber, published an essay in The Lancet that questioned the need for widespread booster shots at this time.

Krause and Gruber had announced their retirements from the FDA on Aug. 30 — at least partly in response to the booster announcement, according to four scientists who know them. Gruber, who will remain at the agency until later this fall, is listed as a participant in Friday’s meeting.

The Lancet paper argues that vaccine-based protection against severe covid is still strong, while evidence is lacking that booster shots will be safe and effective. University of Florida biostatistician Ira Longini, a co-author on the Lancet paper, said it would be “immoral” to begin widespread boosters before the rest of the world was better vaccinated. As the disease continues its global spread, he noted, it is likely to develop deadlier and more vaccine-evasive mutants.

Longini was also skeptical of an August study, which Israeli scientists are to present to the FDA on Friday, that NIH officials had touted as strong evidence in support of boosters. …That study found that people receiving a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 11 times more likely to be protected from covid infection than those who had gotten only two doses. But the study observed people for less than two weeks after their booster vaccinations kicked in. Biostatisticians felt it had irregularities that raised questions about its worth.

[….]

Fauci emphasized that no single study or piece of data led Biden or the members of the White House covid response team to conclude that boosting was necessary. The compilation of evidence of waning immunity combined with reams of research was a factor. Now the crucial decisions are in the hands of the regulators, awaiting the FDA and CDC’s judgment on how the nation should proceed.

“It isn’t as if,” Fauci said, “one day we’re sitting in the Oval Office saying, ‘You know, Mr. President, I think we need to boost.’ And he says, ‘Tony, go ahead and do it.’ You can’t do it that way. You’ve got to go through the process.”

To read the entire article, click here.

Covid-19: FDA set to grant full approval to Pfizer vaccine without public discussion of data

Gareth Iacobucci, BMJ: August 20, 2021


Transparency advocates have criticised the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision not to hold a formal advisory committee meeting to discuss Pfizer’s application for full approval of its covid-19 vaccine.

Last year the FDA said it was “committed to use an advisory committee composed of independent experts to ensure deliberations about authorisation or licensure are transparent for the public.”1 But in a statement, the FDA told The BMJ that it did not believe a meeting was necessary ahead of the expected granting of full approval.

“The FDA has held numerous meetings of its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) related to covid-19 vaccines, including a 22 October 20202 meeting to discuss, in general, the development, authorisation, and licensure of covid-19 vaccines,” an FDA spokesperson said.

“The FDA also has held meetings of the VRBPAC on all three covid-19 vaccines authorised for emergency use and does not believe a meeting is needed related to this biologics license application.”

The spokesperson added, “The Pfizer BioNTech covid-19 vaccine was discussed at the VRBPAC meeting on 10 December 2020.3 If the agency had any questions or concerns that required input from the advisory committee members we would have scheduled a meeting to discuss.”

The vaccine has already been rolled out to millions of Americans through an emergency use authorisation. Companies typically apply for full approval after a longer period has elapsed so that more data are available for review.

But with the US government indicating this week that it plans to start making booster shots widely available next month, experts said the decision not to meet to discuss the data was politically driven.

Data scrutiny

 Kim Witczak, a drug safety advocate who serves as a consumer representative on the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee,4 said the decision removed an important mechanism for scrutinising the data.

“These public meetings are imperative in building trust and confidence especially when the vaccines came to market at lightning speed under emergency use authorisation,” she said. “The public deserves a transparent process, especially as the call for boosters and mandates are rapidly increasing. These meetings offer a platform where questions can be raised, problems tackled, and data scrutinised in advance of an approval.”

[….]

Public discussion

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, who has also spoken at recent VRBPAC meetings, told The BMJ, “It’s obvious that the FDA has no intention of hearing anyone else’s opinion. But if you make decisions behind closed doors it can feed into hesitancy. It’s important to have a public discussion about what kind of data are there and what the limitations are. As we think about risk versus benefit, we need to know.”

Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former FDA deputy commissioner during the Obama administration, said that advisory committee meetings were more than just a way of receiving scientific input from outside experts. “It’s also an opportunity to educate the public about the important work that the FDA has done reviewing an enormous amount of data about a product,” he told The BMJ. “It’s a chance for questions to be asked and answered, building public confidence. If there are no advisory committee meetings prior to licensure, the FDA should consider taking extra steps to explain the basis of its decisions to the public.”

[….]

To read the entire article, click here https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2086

Biden yet to nominate new FDA chief even as delta surges

Justine Coleman and Alex Gangitano, The Hill, August 8, 2021


President Biden has yet to nominate a permanent head of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) at a time when the government is navigating a surge in COVID-19 cases from the delta variant.

It’s unclear why the post remains vacant more than six months into Biden’s presidency, but some experts suggest politics may be getting in the way.

Some Democratic senators are pushing back on the prospects of acting Commissioner Janet Woodcock being named to the permanent role, but health care experts are warning that the administration needs to fill the position immediately.

[…]

Biden selected Woodcock, a longtime FDA regulator, to serve as the acting commissioner in January but has since received pushback, including from senators and anti-opioid advocates on that move.

Several Democratic senators have voiced opposition to Woodcock, citing her time at the FDA when opioid painkillers were approved, later contributing to an epidemic that has left many Americans dead.

“I continue to have concerns about Dr. Woodcock as a potential permanent FDA Commissioner, especially given the role she played in approving and labeling opioid-based medications,” Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, said in a statement. “That’s why I’ve called on President Biden to put forward an FDA commissioner who will act independently from the industry that he or she regulates.”

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), a centrist, has also called on the administration to prioritize nominating a different commissioner, citing concerns about the opioid epidemic and the FDA’s controversial approval of the Alzheimer’s drug Aduhelm.

“Dr. Woodcock is not the right person to lead the FDA,” he wrote in a June letter to Biden.

Two months earlier, Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.) vowed to oppose a potential Woodcock nomination.

Her prospects have not improved over the summer.

In a statement, Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.) called for a “permanent, qualified, trusted” commissioner to address the pandemic and opioid epidemic. Without specifically mentioning Woodcock, he said, “The FDA needs a leader who will learn from the agency’s past mistakes to ensure it never makes them again.”

Other names floated for commissioner include Zeke Emanuel, former health policy adviser in the Obama administration and an architect of the 2010 Affordable Care Act; Michelle McMurry-Heath, CEO of the Biotechnology Innovation Organization; Katherine Luzuriaga, director of the University of Massachusetts Center for Clinical and Translational Science; and Florence Houn, who worked at the FDA during multiple administrations.

[….]

Some experts emphasized that it’s more important to get the right nominee than to rush one through the Senate.

“It’s taken the administration rather a long time to make a decision,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “It makes it even more important that they make the right decision, not just be pushed into making a decision in the next X number of weeks or months.”

Zuckerman called for the Biden administration to prioritize choosing a nominee with a “very strong public health perspective,” noting that Woodcock has become an “untenable” candidate amid the opposition and “controversial” decisions at the agency during her tenure, which dates back to 1986.

[….]

To read the entire article, click here.

7 things to know about bad COVID-19 tests

Kris Pickel, CBS 5, July 29, 2021


PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — A confusing part of the pandemic may have a simple explanation.

People who showed symptoms of COVID-19, but tested negative for the infection or antibodies, may have taken a bad test. False negatives and false positives are a problem with both diagnostic and antibody tests. Flu-like symptoms developed into severe breathing issues for Brian Corte, sending him to the hospital.

[….]

He still does not know if he ever had coronavirus. Brian’s story may sound familiar to a lot of people. Under an accelerated process meant to help fight the pandemic, unreliable tests flooded the market. Nineteen tests to diagnose active covid infections and hundreds of antibodies tests have been placed on a “Should No Longer Be Used” list by the FDA.

Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) versus FDA Approval

At the beginning of the pandemic, there were no products approved to treat or diagnose COVID-19 due to the fact it is a new virus. To deal with the public health emergency, the FDA allowed products on the market to diagnose, treat or prevent COVID-19 under Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs). EUAs are used when a product’s ‘benefits outweigh the risks.’ A significantly lower standard than the FDA’s ‘approval’ process. For example, in the case of a new drug, the FDA’s approval process includes research, multiple studies, an application process, labeling approval, and inspections of manufacturing facilities.

Under the lower standards of the EUA, tests to diagnose active COVID-19 infections were allowed to go on the market without passing the FDA’s standard approval process but had to submit a EUA application to the FDA within three weeks. This allowed tests to be put on the market faster but without prior review from the FDA. The FDA allowed antibody tests on the market with no requirements for EUAs. The result? Fake and unreliable antibody tests flooded the market, and the policy was revised to require EUA applications for antibody tests within two weeks. The FDA acknowledged their attempts to be flexible in dealing with the public health emergency led to unreliable tests:

“… flexibility never meant we would allow fraud. We, unfortunately, see unscrupulous actors marketing fraudulent test kits and using the pandemic as an opportunity to take advantage of Americans’ anxiety. Some test developers have falsely claimed their serological tests are FDA approved or authorized. Others have falsely claimed that their tests can diagnose COVID-19 or that they are for at-home testing…” By: Anand Shah, M.D., Deputy Commissioner for Medical and Scientific Affairs, and Jeff Shuren, M.D., Director, Center for Devices and Radiological Health.

Dr. Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, DC., a non-profit think tank focused on public health policy. Her article “Emergency Use Authorizations (EUAs) Versus FDA Approval: Implications for COVID-19 and Public Health” points out hundreds of medical products were rushed to market under EUAs, including COVID-19 vaccines, diagnostic and antibody tests, treatments, and personal protective equipment.

EUAs are supposed to expire when the public health emergency ends, but that is not always the case. There are still EUAs in place from years ago, including some used for Ebola, Zika, and Swine Flu.

Dr. Zuckerman is concerned that when it comes to COVID-19, standards for tests remain inconsistent and unproven products may remain on the market without meeting the standards to earn FDA approval.

“Going forward, we need to know which treatments are the best. Without FDA approval, the standards are just not high enough to be able to tell us that information,” says Dr. Zuckerman. This investigation set out to answer several questions.

[….]

Has the FDA reviewed the research on all the tests that have been submitted for EUAs?

No. As of June 2021, the FDA website lists about 360 tests that had been given EUAs. Another 300 tests have EUA applications the FDA has not yet review.

How many tests are on the FDA’s “Should No Longer Be Used List”?

At the time of this article, 19 diagnostic tests, and 267 antibody tests. Tests can be placed on this list for various reasons, including failure to apply for an EUA within the proper time frame or if a significant problem is identified. Some manufacturers voluntarily withdrew their notifications that they intended to manufacture a test. Those tests are also included in the list.

Are some tests with EUAs more accurate than others?

Yes. Tests have different levels of both accuracy and sensitivity. We compared two tests used to diagnose an active COVID-19 infection and found one was 3,000 more sensitive in detecting COVID-19 than the other. Both tests have EUAs.

[….]

Is there a way to find out if my COVID-19 diagnostic test is accurate?

This is a tough one. According to Dr. Zuckerman, the best way to know if your test is accurate is to get a second test, especially if your first test was a rapid test. Antigen tests (rapid tests) can return results in as little as 15 minutes. PCR tests are more reliable, but the turnaround for results can take days.

To read the entire article, click here.

My breast implants are making me sick — and I’m not alone

Pamela Appea, Salon: June 20, 2021


In November 2016, a few weeks after I had breast implant surgery, I came down with an unexpected case of thrush (an unappealing fungal infection characterized by a thick white coating on my tongue). As a Black married mother of two, even though I was still sick, I tried — but failed — to power through and take care of my kids. With intense flu-like aches, pain, and fever, it hurt to eat, drink, swallow, or even open my mouth. I couldn’t properly brush my teeth for several days.

Unfortunately, my primary care physician was on vacation. Panicked, I called the Manhattan oncologist whom I had seen a few weeks earlier. He’d been very kind to me following my DCIS breast cancer diagnosis, unilateral mastectomy and post-surgical treatment. The officer’s medical team could barely understand me when I tried to make the appointment on the phone.

“I don’t think you have thrush — didn’t I just see you a few weeks ago?” he said, trying to put me at ease as I stared at his cheerful neon tie. (I think he prided himself on his fun ties.)

It was torture opening my mouth so the doctor could diagnose me.

“Okay, that’s the worst case of thrush I’ve seen in some time,” the seasoned specialist said. He said he was putting me on antibiotics stat. I asked — or rather, wrote on a notepad, since I couldn’t speak clearly — if there could be any connection between the my immune system and the very new breast implant that was now in my body. The oncologist emphatically dismissed the notion as impossible.

Once he got the results of my lab work back, my physician said there was no evidence of anything wrong; I should bounce back in a few days. “These things sometimes happen,” he told me, smiling as he ushered me out.

While the antibiotics eventually cleared up the thrush, unfortunately I have never fully bounced back. In subsequent years since my breast implants were put in, it became even more clear that something was going on with my immune system. But none of my doctors really listened.

Although it was not formerly recognized by the medical community until recently, Breast Implant Illness (BII) has, in the past few years, finally received attention from both media and researchers. Nicole Daruda founded a Facebook’s support group, called Breast Implant Illness Healing by Nicole, in 2013; now, it boasts over 145,000 members. Daruda tentatively estimates that 50,000 women in the US have BII, although precise research-backed numbers are not readily available

“We are overwhelmed by women trying to join the Facebook group to be educated about Breast Implant Illness,” Daruda said. She estimates that 3,000 to 5,000 women message the group’s moderators every month. To try to meet the demand, Daruda later founded a nonprofit, Healing Breast Implant Illness Society of North America.

Research is just barely starting to emerge on BII. One study, published in Annals of Plastic Surgery in 2020, followed 750 women suffering from Breast Implant Illness over a multi-year time period. Once these women surgically removed their breast implants, the vast majority reported the majority of their symptoms had significantly improved or disappeared entirely.

Awareness appears to be growing, too. A wave of celebrities are talking more openly about breast implants and their health and wellness — including Victoria Beckham, Ayesha Curry, Ashley Tisdale, Chrissy Teigen and others.

A documentary that touches on the subject of BII, “Explant,” is screening right now at the Tribeca Film Festival. The film follows Michelle Visage, one of the celebrity judges on “RuPaul’s Drag Race.” Visage, a media personality, singer, DJ and actor who was well known for her signature Double-D breasts, found that doctors didn’t take her seriously when she told the specialists her immune system was out of whack. Visage experienced chronic health issues, including Hashimoto’s disease, that she now attributes to her breast implants.

Awareness of BII is crucial given the popularity of breast implants. Since 1998, the number of breast augmentation procedures in the US has increased threefold; now, they are one of the most sought-out cosmetic procedures.

The desire for breast augmentation seems so powerful regardless of what else is going on in the world,” said Dr. Diana Zuckerman, founder of the National Center for Health Research. “What most concerns me is how reluctant most plastic surgeons have been to make sure their patients know the risks before making a decision.”

Because breast implant technology has existed for decades, many women erroneously believe they are safe.

[….]

In the years after my implant, some of my symptoms mirrored women on support groups I found online, which is how I figured out I had Breast Implant Illness. While symptoms sometimes waxed and waned, I got used to experiencing a host of autoimmune and other symptoms like insomnia, brain fog, extreme breathlessness, cuts that took weeks to heal, rashes, frequent colds and much more.

But BII is no longer regarded as a myth. Many or even most doctors, including plastic surgeon Dr. Anthony Youn, believe Breast Implant Illness is real. Dr. Youn acknowledges it is a controversial topic among many of his fellow American plastic surgeons.

“If you’re happy with your breast implants and you don’t believe they are adversely affecting your health, then there is no need for treatment. If you are sick and believe your implants may be the cause, speak with your primary care physician and a board-certified plastic surgeon about whether explantation may be a possible solution for you,” Dr Youn said. “There are many causes of the symptoms of Breast Implant Illness (BII) that don’t involve breast implants, so it’s often best to rule those out first,” he continued.

In his 17 years of practice in the metro Detroit region, Dr. Youn, a member of the American Society of Plastic Surgeons and The Aesthetic Society, has performed surgery on thousands of women who elected to get breast implants. Anecdotally, he estimates the number patients who later returned to his practice stating they had Breast Implant Illness symptoms is an extremely small percentage.

[….]

Though not all women with breast implants go on to develop Breast Implant Illness, all women deserve education, informed consent, insurance coverage and most important information about potential risks. If, in 2015, there had been an FDA Breast Implant Black Box Warning (which was officially unveiled in late 2020), I honestly never would have gotten breast implants in the first place.

To read the entire article, click here.

Emergency Use Authorization vs. Full Approval: What are the Implications?

Laurie Saloman, Contagion Live: June 20, 2021


Emergency use authorizations, or EUAs, have gotten a lot of attention during the COVID-19 pandemic. The concept of the U.S. Food and Drug Association (FDA) authorizing a product or treatment quickly and without going through a full and complete review process was first introduced in 2005. At that time, the FDA issued an EUA for an anthrax vaccine available to military personnel due to a spate of anthrax-laced letters that killed or sickened nearly 2 dozen people.

Over the following years, EUAs were issued for a variety of experimental therapies for diseases such as H1N1 (swine flu), Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), Ebola, and Zika, which often arose quickly and threatened to become bona fide pandemics. Since last year, numerous EUAs have been issued for COVID-19-related products, including diagnostic and antibody tests, clinical treatments, and vaccines.

But what does it actually mean when a product is given an EUA, and why don’t companies automatically seek full FDA approval? According to Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Center for Health Research, there are several reasons why a company might not pursue approval for a product.

“One [reason] is that it’s found to not work, and so no effort is made to get it approved, and the other is that the company doesn’t necessarily have the incentive to do the research that they would need to do in order to get it approved, because the standards for an EUA are always lower than the standards would be for FDA approval,” she said. “If FDA approval would require a bigger, longer-term study with more patients, that just may not be worth it.” She offered the example of EUAs for various therapies for the Ebola virus, which does not currently present a threat to the US.

Even if a company wants to receive full approval for a product, it can run into problems if it can’t find enough of a patient population to participate in large-scale trials, added Susan Wood, PhD, professor of Health Policy and of Environmental and Occupational Health at the George Washington University Milken Institute School of Public Health and the former Assistant Commissioner for Women’s Health at the FDA.

Zuckerman and Wood agreed that, ideally, companies producing therapies that receive EUAs would go on to pursue approval for these therapies, especially as approved therapies can sometimes be repurposed to work for conditions other than those for which they were initially intended. “The reason why we were able to move…quickly with Covid was because of the work that had been done with other coronaviruses previously, and that really set the stage,” Zuckerman said. “Whether it’s for a rare disease or a future pandemic that we can’t predict, yes, having more information now can help us later.”

For companies, having full approval provides a measure of control. The FDA can withdraw an EUA at any time, preventing a company from selling or dispensing their product; in contrast, it can take several years for the agency to rescind an approval. Insurance typically doesn’t pay for products under an EUA, although in the case of Covid-19 vaccines the government is footing the bill, possibly making financial motives less of a factor for pharmaceutical companies.

But while EUAs are designed to help people get immediate assistance, it’s not uncommon for tests or therapies granted EUAs to end up being ineffective. In the case of COVID-19 tests and treatments, the FDA issued EUAs it later revoked. For example, in March of 2020, companies were permitted to sell antibody tests—which purported to tell users whether or not they had COVID-19 in the past—without submitting EUA applications. In May of 2020, companies were allowed to sell COVID-19 diagnostic tests for 15 business days before they had to submit EUA applications. During that month, the FDA issued 84 EUAs for various labs and companies, and there were an additional 400 applications pending review.

But by February of 2021, enough data on testing had been collected for the FDA to reject 225 different antibody tests. Similarly, although the FDA had granted EUA status to the drug hydroxychloroquine in March of 2020, by June of 2020 it was clear from studies that the drug not only had no discernible benefit but might even be harmful to Covid-19 patients, and the EUA was withdrawn in June 2020.

The lack of full approval by the FDA has been cited as a factor in the reluctance of some people to get the Covid-19 vaccine and has emerged as a flashpoint in the fight over vaccine mandates. Typically, mandates come after years of experience with a vaccine. “Normally…the testing is slower, the back and forth between the FDA and companies is slower, the review process is slower, and it comes on the market in a graduated fashion,” Wood said. At that point, there’s much more acceptance by the general population. “Now, everything’s been compressed, including EUA, and we’re moving straight into mandates by businesses.”

Read the original article here.

The Role of Environmental Regulations in the Fight Against Cancer

NYC NPR, May 10, 2021


Last month, President Biden announced he wanted to boost funding for research on cancer and other diseases. But experts say that the fight against cancer will be tough to win if there isn’t also a focus on preventing the disease by regulating carcinogens. The Environmental Protection Agency has historically been slow to act on known carcinogens and much more research is needed to find out exactly which toxins are making us sick.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, joined The Takeaway to discuss what it would take to win the war on cancer.

To listen, click on the play button on https://www.wnycstudios.org/podcasts/takeaway/segments/role-environmental-regulations-fight-against-cancer

Biden’s ‘end cancer’ pledge begs for environmental oversight

Ariel Wittenberg, E&E News: May 4, 2021


President Biden pledged last week to “end cancer as we know it,” a bold promise focused on boosting funding to the National Institutes of Health for a special Advanced Research Projects Agency-Health.

ARPA-H would be similar to the Department of Energy’s Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy, or ARPA-E, acting as a technology incubator by funding high-potential, high-impact projects that are too early for private-sector investment, but with the “singular purpose to develop breakthroughs to prevent, detect and treat” diseases.

“I can think of no more worthy investment. I know of nothing that is more bipartisan,” Biden told Congress last week. “So let’s end cancer as we know it. It’s within our power. It’s within our power to do it.”

But public health experts who have spent their careers examining environmental causes of cancer say it may not be possible to truly stop cancer without EPA stepping in.

The agency has been infamously slow to stop the use of known carcinogens for decades. Those include benzene, arsenic and asbestos, which is responsible for 40,000 deaths per year alone.

“We know that several chemicals are known to cause cancer in humans and others are highly suspect,” said Bob Sussman, an attorney and former EPA official now representing multiple groups in asbestos litigation against the agency. “There are many causes of cancer, but if we don’t address chemicals, we won’t get the job done.”

EPA could help Biden on his mission if it were faster to regulate not just asbestos but also PFOA, phthalates and bisphenol A, said Linda Birnbaum, who formerly led the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences.

Listening to Biden’s address to Congress, she said, she was happy to hear the president “talking about major changes in how society functions.”

“But the focus was on treatment and cures,” she said. “I’m not opposed to treatment and cures, but I think it’s better to prevent if you can.”

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, agreed that the nation needs a “two-pronged attack” to end cancer.

“You can’t talk about even reducing cancer without talking about environmental toxins,” she said.

She noted that while Biden did mention a need to research cancer “prevention” during his speech, the medical community often refers to cancer screenings as prevention.

“Screening isn’t prevention; it’s early detection. You’ve already got the cancer; we just found it early,” she said. “If you want to prevent it, you have to deal with what causes it in the environment.”

Asked whether EPA sees a role in Biden’s quest to “end cancer as we know it,” the agency responded only, “EPA is fully on board with President Biden’s agenda.”

It’s not exactly clear what that means. Biden did not mention a role for the agency during the cancer portion of his speech to Congress. But the president’s quest to end cancer is famously motivated by his late son, Beau Biden, who died of glioblastoma in 2015.

[….]

Margaret Kripke, a professor of immunology at the University of Texas’ MD Anderson Cancer Center who has been studying the environmental causes of cancer for years, served on the President’s Cancer Panel in the early 2000s. The culmination of her work on the panel was a report on environmental causes of cancer that said “the true burden of environmentally-induced cancer has been grossly underestimated.”

The paper also took aim at EPA, complaining that “ubiquitous chemicals,” like bisphenol A, were still found in many consumer goods despite growing evidence of links to cancer.

“Not a whole lot has changed since then,” Kripke told E&E News last week, “except that we do know more about cancer and how it works, and how chemical exposures work.”

Unfortunately, she and Birnbaum concur, not everyone agrees about what type of evidence is needed to prove a given chemical causes cancer.

[….]

Kripke said EPA might be empowered to regulate more carcinogens if there were more research, either in the lab or in epidemiological studies.

“I do think it’s on the regulatory agencies, because there are a lot of things that are clearly carcinogenic that are regulated in other countries that are not regulated here,” she said. “But at the end of the day, the agencies can only act on the basis of information, and that information ultimately comes from the research efforts.”

That’s where she hopes Biden’s new mission can help. She said cancer funding is often determined by panels of researchers, who themselves can be biased toward funding research similar to their own. If the purpose of an ARPA-H organization is to fund research that would have difficulty obtaining funding otherwise, she said, studies on the health impacts of chemicals could fit that bill.

“If they are going to have a little broader thinking about what is appropriate for funding than traditional panels made up of people doing current cancer research, then maybe there might be a better opportunity to propose studies on cancer-causing agents or chemicals,” she said.

The Department of Health and Human Services did not respond to a request for comment on whether, if approved by Congress, a new ARPA-H would emphasize environmental causes of cancer.

But Zuckerman said she is skeptical that an ARPA-H would mean more funding for research on environmental carcinogens. While ARPA-E, at the Department of Energy, does fund applied and demonstration research for new technologies — the kinds of work private companies don’t find economical — Zuckerman noted that the research is often then picked up and used by companies looking to make money.

“You may get a huge infusion of cash, and yay for that, but it is still within a system where, at the end, there are people who want to earn money off this research,” she said. “You can earn a lot more money off a cancer treatment than you can off reducing pollution.”

You can read the entire article here https://www.eenews.net/stories/1063731675

To Stay: Two More Cancer Indications With ‘Dangling Approvals’

Kerry Dooley Young, Medscape News: April 29, 2021


Two more cancer indications that had been granted accelerated approval by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) are going to stay in place, at least for now. This was the verdict after the second day of a historic 3-day meeting (April 27–29) and follows a similar verdict from day one.

Federal advisers so far have supported the idea of maintaining conditional approvals of some cancer indications for a number of immunotherapy checkpoint inhibitors, despite poor results in studies that were meant to confirm the benefit of these medicines for certain patients.

On the second day (April 28) of the 3-day FDA meeting, the Oncologic Drugs Advisory Committee (ODAC) supported the views of pharmaceutical companies in two more cases of what top agency staff call “dangling accelerated approvals.”

ODAC voted 10-1 in favor of maintaining the indication for atezolizumab (Tecentriq) for the first-line treatment of cisplatin-ineligible patients with advanced/metastatic urothelial carcinoma, pending final overall survival results from the IMvigor130 trial.

ODAC also voted 5-3 that day in favor of maintaining accelerated approval for pembrolizumab (Keytruda) for first-line cisplatin- and carboplatin-ineligible patients with advanced/metastatic urothelial carcinoma.

The FDA often follows the advice of its panels, but it is not bound to do so. If the FDA were to decide to strip the indications in question from these PD-1 medicines, such decisions would not remove these drugs from the market. The three drugs have already been approved for a number of other cancer indications.

Off-label prescribing is not uncommon in oncology, but a loss of an approved indication would affect reimbursement for these medicines, Scot Ebbinghaus, MD, vice president of oncology clinical research at Merck & Co (the manufacturer of pembrolizumab), told ODAC members during a discussion.

[….]

Another participant at the meeting asked the panel and the FDA to consider the burden on patients in paying for medicines that have not yet been proven to be beneficial.

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, noted that the ODAC panel included physicians who see cancer patients.

“You’re used to trying different types of treatments in hopes that something will work,” she said. “Shouldn’t cancer patients be eligible for free treatment in clinical trials instead of paying for treatment that isn’t proven to work?”

[….]

To read the entire article, see https://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/950165

FDA Scrutinizes Pricey Cancer Drugs

Politico Pulse: April 28, 2021


What should be done about expensive cancer drugs on the market that might not work? That could be the first thorny question to confront Woodcock, who is acting FDA commissioner while Biden weighs whether to nominate her for the full-time role.

The FDA is convening an expert panel this week to discuss whether the agency should revoke approved uses of three therapies that, despite positive signs from early research, failed to help patients with certain cancers live longer. All three medicines were approved under Woodcock’s tenure as drug chief and after increasingly speedy reviews.

Drug regulators “wanted to get these drugs to market as quickly as possible,” said Diana Zuckerman, a drug safety expert and president of the National Center for Health Research, who is presenting several times at this week’s meeting. “That was clearly their goal and they succeeded in doing it. But now there is a reckoning.”

What the companies say: Genentech, Merck and Bristol-Myers Squibb, the companies at the center of the debate, say their drugs still have value against the cancers in question, they just need to do more research. And Genentech on Tuesday applauded the advisory panel’s vote to keep its drug on the market for triple-negative breast cancer, one of the approvals in question.

To see the entire Politico Pulse, read https://www.politico.com/politicopulse/.