Category Archives: We’re In the News

4 in 10 Adults Over 50 Consult Online Reviews When Picking a Doctor

Steven Reinberg, HealthDay: April 14, 2021


Finding a new doctor can be a daunting task. For help, many older adults turn to online reviews, a new study finds.

In fact, many people rate online reviews as highly as they would a recommendation from friends and family when picking a doctor, the new research found.

“Doctors and policymakers should know that many older adults are viewing and valuing online ratings and reviews when choosing physicians,” said researcher Dr. Jeffrey Kullgren. He’s an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.

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Diana Zuckerman is president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank that conducts research on a range of health issues. She said that choosing a doctor is a complex undertaking.

“The trouble with these ratings is they’re not based on how good the physician is,” said Zuckerman, who wasn’t involved in the new study. “They’re usually based on convenience issues, like how long do you have to wait in the waiting room, how nice is the doctor, and does the doctor listen to you. These are all nice things, but they’re not really the important things.”

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In all, the survey found that 40% of adults aged 50 to 80 have used online doctor rating sites and trust them almost as much as recommendations from family or friends for choosing a doctor. Also, online ratings were seen as more important than where a doctor went to medical school or trained.

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Women, people with more education and those with chronic conditions were the most likely to turn to online rating sites, the investigators found.

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Zuckerman said that most people don’t have the expertise to rate a doctor in ways that are meaningful in terms of how good a physician is or how good the medical care that they’re going to get is.

Often, online ratings should be taken with a grain of salt, she said, because you don’t know exactly what the ratings are based on.

The recommendation of friends or family members can be helpful, but in the end, it’s going to be how your experience with a doctor measures up to your needs and expectations that are important. And you shouldn’t be afraid to change doctors if you’re dissatisfied with your care, she adonvised.

Zuckerman agreed with the researchers that it’s up to policymakers and clinicians to set standards and criteria for online reviews. Patients, too, need to understand the pros and cons of online ratings.

You can read the entire article here.

What Genentech is doing to fix biotech’s diversity problem

Fortune Editors, Fortune: April 7, 2021


There’s a big problem with clinical trials: a lack of diversity. And that issue is ultimately detrimental to countless people’s lives and health.

Take, for example, breast cancer research. For a long time, the thinking in the health care world was that Black women didn’t develop breast cancer as often as white women, but when they did, they were more likely to die because of it.

“There was this assumption that it was an issue of access to care, the quality of care,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank that analyzes the latest research and helps consumers and organizations put that information to work. But “if you looked at the research, you saw that the original major studies of breast cancer treatment were done on white women.”

That meant the research featured fewer women with triple-negative breast cancer, which Black women develop more often than white women. “Because [women with triple-negative breast cancer] weren’t studied,” Zuckerman continues, “[the researchers] didn’t realize that the treatments that they were studying would not work on those types of cancer.”

Zuckerman talks with Fortune’s Ellen McGirt on this week’s episode of Leadership Next, a podcast about the changing rules of business leadership. Also on the episode with McGirt and cohost Alan Murray is Alexander Hardy, who became CEO of biotech company Genentech two years ago.

Hardy has made it clear that he’s committed to boosting diversity within the biotech world and in clinical trials, and he was already doing so before the pandemic. But COVID-19 crystallized some of the issues in the U.S.

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During the show, Hardy also discusses the ways the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the biotech industry, and how those changes could spill over into research on diseases such as Alzheimer’s, ALS, and cancer.

To read the entire article and listen to the podcast, click here.

The FDA Cut Off COVID Vaccine Testing. That Was a Really Bad Idea.

Shannon Brownlee and Jeanne Lenzer, Washington Monthly: March 26, 2021


Not since the polio vaccine became available in April 1955 have Americans been so excited about getting a shot. After a year of isolation, fear, and death, most of us can hardly wait to get vaccinated against Covid-19.

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From everything we know about the various Covid-19 vaccines, normal life, or some semblance of it, could return as early as late summer or fall in the United States. The first two vaccines, made by Pfizer and Moderna, appear to be more than 90 percent effective. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine also looks to be quite effective. Thus far, the side effects seem tolerable. If there’s a problem with the vaccines, it’s that production has not kept up with demand and rich countries are scooping up the majority of available doses, leaving poorer countries to fend for themselves.

But behind the scenes, there’s a lot we don’t know, especially about the vaccines made by Pfizer and Moderna, which employ a completely novel technology involving mRNA, a type of genetic material. The reason we don’t know it is because of a decision made back in December by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency allowed manufacturers to effectively stop their clinical trials as soon as they were authorized to market their vaccines. While the early results from the clinical trials look incredibly promising, we don’t actually know with any precision just how effective and safe they really are – and we probably never will. That might sound like the kind of hairsplitting that hardly matters when a pandemic is raging and people’s lives are at stake, but it does matter for future vaccination campaigns. It’s worth considering why the FDA did it and whether or not that’s how vaccines and other medical products should be regulated in the future.

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Even before the first vaccine came out, there were worries the FDA would not hold the companies’ feet to the fire and make them finish the trials. In an editorial published on September 10, Howard Bauchner, the editor in chief of the Journal of the American Medical Association and colleagues wrote, “prematurely approving a vaccine could undermine Covid-19 vaccine efforts and erode confidence in vaccines more generally.”

Bauchner and others also predicted that once the shots were available to the public, study volunteers would leave the vaccine trials in droves in order to find out if they had gotten the real vaccine or a placebo (dummy shot) – so they could get the vaccine as soon as possible if they were on placebo. That would undermine the studies, effectively stopping them after just a median of two months of data had been collected. Once the studies were stopped and the vaccines were released to the general population, it would be very hard to track side effects and efficacy.

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Back in September, Anthony Fauci, who was then head of President Trump’s Covid-19 task force and remains the chief of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, had already proposed a clever plan. He recommended a “blinded crossover design.” Volunteers who had been in the placebo group would be given the real vaccine, while vaccine recipients would receive placebo—without anybody being told which they had gotten first. In this way, all volunteers would receive the vaccine while allowing ongoing surveillance regarding long term safety and efficacy. When the FDA called in Steven Goodman, an expert in clinical trial design from Stanford, he too endorsed the blinded crossover design, which is commonly used in medical research.

The manufacturers were less than enthusiastic. They told the FDA that executing crossover studies would be “onerous.” In this case, that word translates to “expensive,” and there’s no doubt that continuing the trials would cost more money. Not to mention the fact that the longer the trials went, the more likely it would have been that the vaccines would look a little worse than they did at first, at least in some populations, like people with immune disorders. That’s precisely the kind of data the FDA needs to protect the public health. Nevertheless, with a solution offered by top experts on the one hand, and industry opposition on the other, FDA higher ups made their decision. Instead of insisting on the trials continuing, they asked the companies to “inform the agency” of their plans. Was it pressure from the Trump White House, members of Congress, or some other reason the FDA caved to industry, as often happens? We can’t be sure, but the testing design Fauci and Goodman endorsed would have let the wider public get the vaccine just as quickly.

This decision to cut the trials short could come back to haunt the FDA. For one thing, getting more data could have reassured millions of Americans who are currently “vaccine hesitant” that the agency is looking out for them.

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Another reason longer trials would have been good policy: Public health officials and individual patients would probably like to know who is least likely to be protected by the vaccines and who is most vulnerable to their side effects. Diana Zuckerman, president of the non-profit National Center for Health Research, says, “I’m especially concerned that Pfizer’s vaccine trials included only five people aged 75 and older who were diagnosed with Covid-19.” She adds: “That makes it impossible to determine how effective the vaccine is for frail elderly patients.”

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This episode in the annals of potentially wrongheaded FDA decisions bears directly on the Biden administration’s decision about who to nominate as FDA commissioner. The two top picks are Janet Woodcock, current acting commissioner and 35-year veteran at the agency versus Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice at Johns Hopkins. Both are physicians and both have experience at the agency, and that’s pretty much where the similarity between them ends. Woodcock has presided over many of the most questionable drug approvals the FDA has made in recent memory. She sees industry as a “partner,” and she’s the preferred candidate of Pharma, device makers, and several patient groups, most of which receive industry funding – precisely because she has weakened the FDA’s oversight.

Sharfstein comes with a public health perspective and an acute awareness of the need to rebuild the agency’s reputation as independent from both politics and industry. As deputy commissioner of the FDA during the Obama presidency, he proved his mettle when he headed an internal investigation into the approval of an ineffective and harmful medical device.

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Whoever the Biden administration chooses, whether it’s Sharfstein, Woodcock or someone else, Americans need to know the agency charged with protecting their health from dangerous medical products is, as the president often says, “following the science,” rather than the pleas of industry. We should be thankful that we have Covid-19 jabs that can help free us from this plague year. But we may never have the full story on them. The FDA can do a better job in the future.

To read the entire article, click here.

The Differences Between the Vaccines Matter

Hilda Bastian, The Atlantic: March 7, 2021


Public-health officials are enthusiastic about the new, single-shot COVID-19 vaccine from Johnson & Johnson, despite its having a somewhat lower efficacy at preventing symptomatic illness than other available options. Although clinical-trial data peg that rate at 72 percent in the United States, compared with 94 and 95 percent for the Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, many experts say we shouldn’t fixate on those numbers. Much more germane, they say, is the fact that the Johnson & Johnson shot, like the other two, is essentially perfect when it comes to preventing the gravest outcomes. “I’m super-pumped about this,” Virginia’s vaccine coordinator told The New York Times last weekend. “A hundred percent efficacy against deaths and hospitalizations? That’s all I need to hear.”

The same glowing message—that the COVID-19 vaccines are all equivalent, at least where it really counts—has been getting public-health officials and pundits super-pumped for weeks now. Its potential value for promoting vaccination couldn’t be more clear: We’ll all be better off, and this nightmare will be over sooner, if people know that the best vaccine of all is whichever one they can get the soonest. With that in mind, Vox has urged its readers to attend to “the most important vaccine statistic”—the fact that “there have been zero cases of hospitalization or death in clinical trials for all of these vaccines.” The physician and CNN medical analyst Leana Wen also made a point of noting that “all of the vaccines are essentially a hundred percent” in this regard. And half a dozen former members of President Joe Biden’s COVID-19 Advisory Board wrote in USA Today, “Varying ‘effectiveness’ rates miss the most important point: The vaccines were all 100% effective in the vaccine trials in stopping hospitalizations and death.”

There’s a problem here. It’s certainly true that all three of the FDA-authorized vaccines are very good—amazing, even—at protecting people’s health. No one should refrain from seeking vaccination on the theory that any might be second-rate. But it’s also true that the COVID-19 vaccines aren’t all the same: Some are more effective than others at preventing illness, for example; some cause fewer adverse reactions; some are more convenient; some were made using more familiar methods and technologies. As for the claim that the vaccines have proved perfectly and equally effective at preventing hospitalization and death? It’s just not right.

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The data were indeed suggestive of an encouraging idea. Based on the numbers so far, we can expect the vaccines to provide extremely high levels of protection against the most dire outcomes. Still, we don’t know how high—and it’s clear they won’t uniformly cause hospitalizations and deaths from COVID-19 to disappear in vaccinated people.

The experts understand this, of course. Gandhi has been updating her table as more data come in, and now pegs Moderna’s efficacy on that front at 97 percent; Jha has since tweeted that “nothing is 100 percent … But these vaccines sure are close”; and Topol told The Atlantic that the numbers in his tweet are not a sufficient basis from which to draw “any determination of magnitude of effect,” though the fact that they all point in the same direction is “very encouraging.” Still, the message of perfection that their initial tables and tweets spawned—the gist, for many readers, of all those 100s and zeros—has since been picked up far and wide, and misinterpreted along the way.

For the AstraZeneca vaccine, one person in the control group had severe COVID-19, but eight people were hospitalized; for Johnson & Johnson, 34 people in the placebo group had severe COVID-19, but only five people were hospitalized. It’s true that zero vaccinated people were hospitalized in either study after the vaccines took effect. But with numbers that small, you can’t draw a reliable conclusion about how high efficacy may be for these outcomes. As Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Health Research pointed out about the Johnson & Johnson trial, “It’s misleading to tell the public that nobody who was vaccinated was hospitalized unless you also tell them that only 5 people in the placebo group were hospitalized.” She’s right. And you can’t be confident about predicting effectiveness precisely in a wider population outside the trial, either. For example, some of the vaccine trials included relatively few people older than 60 as participants.

You can see how fragile these numbers are by looking at those compiled for severe disease. In the Pfizer trial, for example, just one vaccinated person developed severe COVID-19 versus three in the placebo group—which meant that a single bout of disease made the difference between a calculated efficacy rate of 66 percent and one of 100 percent. For the Novavax and Oxford-AstraZeneca trials, there were zero people with severe disease in the vaccinated group versus only one in the control group, so adding or subtracting one would have been even more dramatic. The problem is even greater for deaths. For that efficacy analysis, only two of the vaccine trials—for Moderna’s and Johnson & Johnson’s—reported any COVID-19 deaths at all in the control groups.

It’s also important to remember that these are early results: Some people who enrolled very late in the trials aren’t yet included in reported data, and analysis is still under way. Indeed, the FDA pointed out in December that one vaccinated person in the Moderna trial had been hospitalized with apparently severe COVID-19 two months after receiving a second dose. That person was in a group still awaiting final assessment by the researchers, and was not mentioned in Moderna’s formal readout of results.

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“The idea that people can’t handle nuance,” Jha tweeted at the end of February, “it’s paternalistic. And untrue.” I couldn’t agree more. The principle of treating people like adults is fundamental. We don’t need to exaggerate. Talking about the trade-offs between different medicines and vaccines is often complicated, but we do it all the time—and we can do it with COVID-19 vaccines too.

To read the entire article, click here

Janet Woodcock revolutionized the way the FDA reviews cancer drugs, inspiring her supporters and raising concerns for detractors

Nicholas Florko, STAT News: March 1, 2021


In 2000, the Food and Drug Administration approved just three cancer drugs. Last year, even with the agency laser-focused on the coronavirus pandemic, much of its staff teleworking, the agency still approved a record-breaking 17 different cancer therapies — more than in any other category. That’s the legacy of FDA drug center chief Janet Woodcock. Woodcock, a 36-year veteran of the agency, is infamous for pushing the FDA to loosen its standards for drugs for rare conditions like Duchenne muscular dystrophy. But Woodcock’s most lasting impact at the FDA is her transformation of the way the agency approaches cancer drug approvals….. Now the nation’s top cancer doctors are emerging as Woodcock’s most vocal backers in her campaign to become President Biden’s FDA commissioner.

Critics say Woodcock’s cancer crusade has come at a cost. With the speed has come an erosion of the agency’s high standards and an increasing willingness to greenlight drugs that haven’t actually been proven to extend a patient’s life. … Their complaint mostly revolves around Woodcock’s willingness to accept studies testing drugs based on so-called surrogate endpoints, measures like the shrinkage of a tumor, rather testing a drug based on how long it keeps a patient alive. ….It’s a view that even some former FDA officials hold; one described Woodcock as pushing “flexibility even at the expense of science.”

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“For many cancers there is an improvement in survival, the question is which drugs are responsible for that and which ones aren’t, that’s the big unknown and that’s what’s so frustrating,” said Diana Zuckerman, the president of the National Center for Health Research. The end result of this confusion, critics argue, is that doctors and patients are left guessing whether a drug is truly effective, or worth the money.

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Read the full article here.

Drug Industry Pushes FDA to Solve Growing Inspection Backlog

Suzanne Smalley, Politico: March 2, 2021


The Food and Drug Administration is under increasing pressure from the pharmaceutical industry to address the growing backlog of drug inspections — nearly a year after Covid-19 prompted the agency to halt most plant visits.

From March through September, FDA inspected just three plants outside the U.S., well below the 600-plus it visited in each of the prior two years, the Government Accountability Office said last month. FDA has also struggled to keep up with inspections within U.S. borders, conducting just 52 during the same seven-month period last year, compared with roughly 400 each in 2019 and 2018.

Inspections, which are required before a therapy wins FDA approval, are a vital tool to ensure the safety of new drugs as well as medicines already on the market. The work takes FDA inspectors all over the world. More than 70 percent of drug ingredients are manufactured outside of the U.S., largely in India and China. The two countries are also major suppliers of generic drugs.

The effects of the FDA slowdown are already becoming apparent. In recent weeks, the agency has deferred or denied at least six drug approvals because it could not inspect manufacturing sites in the U.S. and abroad. The delayed treatments include drugs for endometrial cancer and abnormally low levels of white blood cells, a condition often linked to cancer treatment; a regenerative skin therapy for adults with deep second-degree burns; and a cholesterol drug for people who cannot tolerate statins.

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“There’s a huge backlog of drugs and biologics facilities that have not been inspected and it is affecting the public health. The agency doesn’t really seem to care and we are now approaching the one year point,” said Mark Schwartz, a lawyer at Hyman, Phelps & McNamara in Washington, D.C., who represents drug companies. “It is irresponsible for the gold standard of regulatory bodies to be dithering while pharma is burning.”

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FDA spokesperson Jeremy Kahn said that the agency continues to perform what it calls “mission critical” inspections and is using record reviews and outside regulator reports to replace in-person visits where possible. While several drugs’ applications for approval have been deferred due to the lack of inspections, Kahn said the FDA has not experienced “a significant impact on its ability to take action on drug applications.”

“The FDA believes that maintaining oversight of manufacturing operations is critical to ensuring drugs remain safe and effective,” Kahn said in a statement. “The health, safety and well-being of all Americans — including our investigators — are of utmost importance to the FDA.”

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Lawyers representing the industry have pressed the FDA to consider using virtual inspections since the pandemic began, but they say the agency has been noncommittal. Donald Ashley, the director of the Office of Compliance in the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, told an industry conference in December that he worried remote inspections could miss problems.

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While the GAO report only documented drug inspection backlogs, agency watchdogs said the problem extends to medical devices as well. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, said she is particularly disturbed by the device backlog because devices typically do not undergo clinical trials, leaving inspections as the primary tool for assessing safety and effectiveness.

Earlier this month, a division within the FDA’s Office of Regulatory Affairs gave Zuckerman a Zoom briefing on its inspections of medical devices. She said three officials presented her with their 2019 inspection numbers and omitted 2020, which is when the pandemic hit and inspections largely stopped.

“I said, ‘Well, that’s very interesting about 2019, but what about 2020?’” Zuckerman said. “And I said I understand how difficult it is to do inspections during a pandemic, and they said basically they don’t do them.” 

 

To read entire article, click here https://www.politico.com/news/2021/03/02/fda-pandemic-drug-inspection-471979

J&J COVID-19 Vaccine Wins Unanimous Backing of FDA Panel

Kerry Dooley Young, Medscape Medical News: February 26, 2021


An FDA advisory panel lent their support today to a rapid clearance for Janssen/Johnson & Johnson’s COVID-19 vaccine.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is expected to quickly provide an emergency use authorization (EUA) for the vaccine following the recommendation by the panel.

The FDA’s Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee voted 22-0 on this question: Based on the totality of scientific evidence available, do the benefits of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 Vaccine outweigh its risks for use in individuals 18 years of age and older?

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine is expected to offer more convenient dosing and be easier to distribute than the two rival products already available in the United States. Janssen’s vaccine is intended to be given in a single dose. In December, the FDA granted EUAs for the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna COVID-19 vaccines, which are each two-dose regimens.

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Weakened Standards?

Several researchers called on the FDA to maintain a critical attitude when assessing Johnson & Johnson’s application for the EUA, warning of a potential for a permanent erosion of agency rules due to hasty action on COVID vaccines.

They raised concerns about the FDA demanding too little in terms of follow-up studies on COVID vaccines and with persisting murkiness resulting in attempts to determine how well these treatments work beyond the initial study period.

“I worry about FDA lowering its approval standards,” said Peter Doshi, PhD, from The BMJ and a faculty member at the University of Maryland School of Medicine in Baltimore, during an open public hearing at the meeting.

“There’s a real urgency to stand back right now and look at the forest here, as well as the trees, and I urge the committee to consider the effects FDA decisions may have on the entire regulatory approval process,” Doshi said.

Doshi asked why Johnson & Johnson did not seek a standard full approval — a biologics license application (BLA) — instead of aiming for the lower bar of an EUA. The FDA already has allowed wide distribution of the Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna vaccines through EUAs. That removes the sense of urgency that FDA faced last year in his view.

The FDA’s June 2020 guidance on the development of COVID vaccines had asked drug makers to plan on following participants in COVID vaccine trials for “ideally at least one to two years.” Yet people who got placebo in Moderna and Pfizer trials already are being vaccinated, Doshi said. And Johnson & Johnson said in its presentation to the FDA that if the Ad26.COV2.S vaccine were granted an EUA, the COV3001 study design would be amended to “facilitate cross-over of placebo participants in all participating countries to receive one dose of active study vaccine as fast as operationally feasible.”

“I’m nervous about the prospect of there never being a COVID vaccine that meets the FDA’s approval standard” for a BLA instead of the more limited EUA, Doshi said.

Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, noted that the FDA’s subsequent guidance tailored for EUAs for COVID vaccines “drastically shortened” the follow-up time to a median of 2 months. Zuckerman said that a crossover design would be “a reasonable compromise, but only if the placebo group has at least 6 months of data.” Zuckerman opened her remarks in the open public hearing by saying she had inherited Johnson & Johnson stock, so was speaking at the meeting against her own financial interest.

“As soon as a vaccine is authorized, we start losing the placebo group. If FDA lets that happen, that’s a huge loss for public health and a huge loss of information about how we can all stay safe,” Zuckerman said.

Read the entire article here. 

What you need to know about J&J’s newly authorized one-shot COVID-19 vaccine

Tina Hesman Saey, ScienceNews: February 27, 2021


And then there were three: A single-shot vaccine is the latest weapon to join the battle against COVID-19 in the United States.

On February 27, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration gave emergency use authorization for Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. South Africa is the only other country to OK Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine so far, though other countries are poised to follow suit.

The FDA determined that Johnson & Johnson’s vaccine meets the criteria for safety and effectiveness and that there is clear evidence that it may prevent COVID-19, the agency said in a statement.

“With today’s authorization, we are adding another vaccine in our medical toolbox to fight this virus,” said Peter Marks,  director of the FDA’s Center for Biologics Evaluation and Research.

Its authorization for emergency use in the United States – for people age 18 and older – follows similar authorizations in December for vaccines made by Moderna and by Pfizer and its German partner BioNTech.

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As of February 25, more than 52,000 people were hospitalized in the United States fighting COVID-19, according to the COVID Tracking Project. That’s down from the record-setting daily peaks of more than 130,000 in early January and the lowest since early to mid-November. More than half a million people in the United States have now died from COVID-19.

In Johnson & Johnson’s clinical trial, two of the 19,514 people in the vaccine group were hospitalized with COVID-19 starting 14 days after vaccination. That compares with 29 hospitalizations among the 19,544 people in the placebo group. None of the vaccinated people died, but there were seven deaths related to COVID-19 in the placebo group. Those numbers are small and some researchers say the data aren’t clear-cut on the benefits.

“The data indicate that the vaccine is effective, but doesn’t prove that the vaccine is especially effective against moderate to severe COVID,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a Washington, D.C.–based think tank that analyzes health research.

The data were also collected after only two months of follow-up. Normally, the FDA requires a year or more of data to fully approve a vaccine. Some questions about the vaccine can’t be answered with less than six months of data, Zuckerman said during a public comment period in the Feb. 26 advisory board hearing.  “Let’s be very honest with the public about what we do know and what we won’t know” for some time to come.

For all the vaccines, no one knows how long immunity will last. And what’s already authorized might need to be tweaked if resistant variants become widespread. Booster shots may be needed, Benjamin says.

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To read the entire article, click here.

Who Will Be the Next F.D.A. Chief?

Sheila Kaplan, New York Times: February 20, 2021


One month into his presidency, President Biden still has not named a candidate to head the Food and Drug Administration, a critical position at a time when new vaccines and coronavirus treatments are under the agency’s review.

The glaring vacancy lags behind the president’s selections of most other top government health posts, and has spurred a public lobbying campaign by supporters of the two apparent front-runners, Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a former high-ranking F.D.A. official and Dr. Janet Woodcock, the acting commissioner.

It has also exposed rifts among Congressional lawmakers, within the public health and medical communities as well as the health and drug industries that depend on the F.D.A. for approval of their products. In particular, some public health officials have used the open position to debate the leadership qualifications needed to restore the agency’s morale and credibility after a year fighting both a pandemic and a president who often belittled the F.D.A.’s process for approving treatments and vaccines.

Administration officials say that Dr. Sharfstein and Dr. Woodcock have gone through at least partial vetting for the job. They attributed the delay to their focus on solving Covid vaccine shortages and distribution problems. They also noted that Xavier Becerra, the attorney general of California and who Mr. Biden has nominated for secretary of the Health and Human Services Department, faces Republican opposition that could jeopardize his confirmation.

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Dr. Woodcock’s decades of service at the F.D.A. have made her more of a target for critics, and she has drawn particular fire over her agency roles during the opioid crisis.

Dr. Sharfstein, who held the No. 2 slot at the F.D.A. for nearly two years in the Obama administration, has extensive public health interests. At 51, he is a prolific writer, with more than 100 articles, editorials and journal papers published in the past few years on subjects ranging from training physicians to treating opioid addiction to reducing drug prices. He often criticized the Trump administration’s pandemic response, and called for the F.D.A. to “stand up for itself and for science, not politics.”

Early in the coronavirus outbreak, Dr. Sharfstein urged public health officials to focus on protecting racial and ethnic minorities, poor people and others who face social inequities. He has called for expanding housing to hold people with mild symptoms in quarantine; protecting tenants from eviction and offering incentives to food providers to deliver food to low-income neighborhoods for free or at a discount. He also proposed a federal coronavirus insurance program.

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“I think Josh would be a good choice,” said David Nexon, a former executive at the Advanced Medical Technology Association, known as AdvaMed. “He’s a very smart guy, very committed to public health and he has a broad public health background, which would be an asset because of F.D.A.’s wide-ranging responsibilities.”

Dr. Woodcock, 72, also commands deep support, especially within the vast network of cancer-related patient advocacy groups, researchers and the drug companies that help finance them. But Dr. Woodcock, who has spent over 36 years working for the agency, has also generated much stiffer opposition in this round than Dr. Sharfstein.

“In the past, even when the F.D.A. review of the drug was scathing, quite often Janet Woodcock or another high level F.D.A. official would be at the meeting, clearly pushing the advisory committee to recommend approval,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a think tank and advocacy group. “But by law, these advisory committees are supposed to make recommendations independent of any F.D.A. pressure.”

But the loudest objections to Dr. Woodcock focus on the F.D.A.’s role in the opioid epidemic during her two stints as chief of its drug division, from 1994 to 2004 and then again from 2007 until she moved to Operation Warp Speed last May. (Between those two postings, she held other roles at the agency.)

In January, a group of nonprofit advocacy groups wrote to Mr. Becerra, the health secretary nominee, and Norris Cochran, the acting health secretary, saying that Dr. Woodcock’s 25-year tenure as F.D.A.’s drug division chief should disqualify her from consideration for commissioner.

“Much of the responsibility for the opioid crisis clearly rests with industry,” the group wrote. “But the fact that opioid manufacturers for decades disseminated false claims about the risks and benefits of opioids points to a dereliction of duty” by Dr. Woodcock’s division.

The letter cited a 2017 presidential commission report on the opioid crisis, which found that it was caused in part by “inadequate oversight by the F.D.A.”

Dr. Woodcock’s role in the approval of new opioid products has also drawn strong opposition from some members of Congress, including Democratic Senators Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire and Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts. Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, has also been very critical of the F.D.A.’s handling of opioids under Dr. Woodcock.

“Multiple past F.D.A. commissioners have acknowledged that the F.D.A. made mistakes regarding the opioid crisis, yet the agency still has not fully reckoned with its past missteps,” Senator Hassan said in an email. “The F.D.A.’s decision-making processes for the approval and labeling of opioid drugs going back decades remain of serious concern, and it’s important that the next F.D.A. commissioner is someone who has demonstrated that they have learned from the F.D.A.’s past mistakes — not someone who has been involved in repeating them.”

The nonprofit advocacy groups’ letter prompted a defense of Dr. Woodcock orchestrated in large part by Ellen Sigal, co-founder of Friends of Cancer Research. Ms. Sigal is also chairwoman of the Reagan-Udall Foundation for the F.D.A., an influential organization created by Congress to help advance the agency’s mission and to speed development of new medical treatments.

Friends of Cancer Research receives much of its funding from drug companies. The 2019 top donor list for Friends of Cancer Research includes Amgen, AstraZeneca, Bristol-Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly Co., Genentech, Gilead, Merck, Pfizer and PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry trade group. The Reagan-Udall Foundation receives funding directly from the F.D.A., but also lists drug industry donors, among them: Biogen, Johnson & Johnson, Teva and the Biotechnology Innovation Organization, known as BIO, which gave Dr. Woodcock an award in 2019 in conjunction with the Science History Institute.

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Dr. Sharfstein’s supporters countered with a letter on Feb. 5, signed by 18 top academic physicians and researchers. “Dr. Sharfstein knows the F.D.A. and will ensure that its decision-making is scientifically beyond reproach, transparent and based on the principles of public health,” they wrote.

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To read the entire article, click here: https://www.nytimes.com/2021/02/20/health/Covid-FDA-Biden.html

FDA blasts Merck’s Keytruda data for new breast cancer indication

Ed Silverman, Stat News: February 5, 2021


Merck (MRK5 ) may have readily turned its Keytruda cancer drug into a medical and financial juggernaut, but its bid to win regulatory approval for at least one additional use may not come so easily, judging by documents from the Food and Drug Administration. The drug maker wants to sell the medicine to combat high-risk, early-stage triple-negative breast cancer along with chemotherapy before surgery, and then by itself after surgery.

[…]

Given the FDA review, though, the likelihood of a recommendation next week is not high, according to Ira Loss of Washington Analysis, who tracks pharmaceutical regulatory and legislative matters for investors. “The agency believes, and we think the (FDA expert) committee will agree, that further data from the trial are needed to make an informed decision,” he wrote to investors.

Another FDA watcher was even more blunt. “It’s important to have good treatment because this disproportionately occurs among Black women,” said Diana Zuckerman, who heads the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank. “But they’re saying this may not be needed, may not work and may be harmful – that’s pretty damning. And there are some real safety issues that can have terrible impact on patients… This is one of the most negative reviews I’ve ever seen.”

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Read the full article here