Tag Archives: COVID19

Covid-19: Should vaccine trials be unblinded?

Jeanne Lenzer, BMJ: December 29, 2020.


The lack of planning for how to treat participants in covid-19 vaccine trials is a bad precedent, with the loss of potentially valuable safety and efficacy data, say research experts. Jeanne Lenzer reports:

 

In October the US Food and Drug Administration issued non-binding guidance to manufacturers of covid-19 vaccines urging them to devise a method to allow volunteers in their studies’ placebo arms to receive the vaccine while also maintaining the integrity of ongoing scientific data collection.1 Emergency use authorisation was not “grounds for stopping blinded follow-up,” said the agency.23

The companies say they have an ethical obligation to unblind volunteers so they can receive the vaccine. But some experts are concerned about a “disastrous” loss of critical information if volunteers on a trial’s placebo arm are unblinded.45

To try to tackle the problem the FDA invited Steven Goodman, associate dean of clinical and translational research at Stanford University, for a recommendation that could balance the right of volunteers to find out whether they were in the placebo arm and the simultaneous need to preserve scientific data.

Goodman recommended a study design endorsed by Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases: a blinded crossover study in which placebo recipients would be given the vaccine, and vice versa.235 That would ensure that all volunteers receive the vaccine but would be unaware of which shot they received at which time. This would allow ongoing surveillance of safety issues and more time to observe any waning effects of the vaccine and the possible need for booster doses.

But the companies said that the demands of a blinded crossover design were “onerous” and might not be feasible.6 And even before the FDA advisory committee meeting on Moderna’s vaccine on 17 December, the company notified volunteers that they could learn their status if they chose to receive the vaccine.

Pfizer also sent a letter to its trial participants one week after its vaccine was authorised on 10 December.7 It told them that, on request, they could learn whether they were in the placebo arm so they could receive the vaccine as it became available and according to recommendations of the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Asked by The BMJ whether the FDA had set any baseline requirements for the companies regarding the removal of blinding, the agency declined to answer, referring the journal to the respective companies for their plans.

Pfizer told The BMJ that the “move from the placebo group to the vaccine group would be completely optional, and participants would be encouraged to remain blinded throughout the full study duration.” Moderna failed to respond to several requests for comment.

Loss of data

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, told The BMJ that the FDA could have demanded that companies use the blinded crossover design for them to win full approval for their vaccines. She said that failure to do that meant the loss of future reliable data, which is especially concerning given that preliminary data are insufficient to determine efficacy.

“I’m especially concerned that Pfizer’s vaccine trials included only five people aged 75 and older who were diagnosed with covid-19, with an unspecified number of those defined by Pfizer as severe cases,” she said. “That makes it impossible to determine how effective the vaccine is for frail elderly patients.”

Although the FDA has granted the vaccines emergency use authorisation, to get full licence approval two years of follow-up data are needed. The data are now likely to be scanty and less reliable given that the trials are effectively being unblinded.

Consumer representative Sheldon Toubman, a lawyer and FDA advisory panel member, said that Pfizer and BioNTech had not proved that their vaccine prevents severe covid-19. “The FDA says all we can do is suggest protection from severe covid disease; we need to know that it does that,” he said.

He countered claims, based on experience with other vaccines, six weeks of follow-up was long enough to detect safety signals. Six weeks may not be long enough for this entirely new type of “untested” [mRNA] vaccine, Toubman said.

Goodman wants all companies to be held to the same standard and says they should not be allowed to make up their own rules about unblinding. He told The BMJ that, while he was “very optimistic” about the vaccines, “blowing up the trials” by allowing unblinding “will set a de facto standard for all vaccine trials to come.” And that, he said, “is dangerous.”

Footnotes

  • Correction: On 30 December we amended the final paragraph to clarify Steven Goodman’s comment.

This article is made freely available for use in accordance with BMJ’s website terms and conditions for the duration of the covid-19 pandemic or until otherwise determined by BMJ. You may use, download and print the article for any lawful, non-commercial purpose (including text and data mining) provided that all copyright notices and trade marks are retained.

https://bmj.com/coronavirus/usage

References

  1. Food and Drug Administration. Emergency use authorization for vaccines to prevent covid-19: guidance for industry. 2020. https://www.fda.gov/media/142749/download.
  2. Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee meeting December 10, 2020. 2020. https://www.fda.gov/media/144245/download.
  3. Food and Drug Administration. Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee December 17, 2020 meeting briefing document. 2020 https://www.fda.gov/media/144434/download.
  4. WHO Ad Hoc Expert Group on the Next Steps for Covid-19 Vaccine Evaluation. Placebo-controlled trials of covid-19 vaccines—why we still need them. N Engl J Med2020. doi:10.1056/NEJMp2033538.
  5. Weiland CZ. Noah. Many trial volunteers got placebo vaccines. Do they now deserve the real ones? New York Times. 2 Dec 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/12/02/health/covid-vaccine-placebo-group.html.
  6. Karlin-Smith S. Covid-19 vaccine sponsors want US FDA to find alternatives for control-arm data after first EUA. Pink Sheet. 2020. https://pink.pharmaintelligence.informa.com/PS143143/COVID-19-Vaccine-Sponsors-Want-US-FDA-To-Find-Alternatives-For-Control-Arm-Data-After-First-EUA.
  7. Tanne JHCovid-19: FDA panel votes to approve Pfizer BioNTech vaccine. BMJ2020;371:m4799.  doi:10.1136/bmj.m4799 pmid:33310748 FREE Full TextGoogle Scholar 

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NCHR Statement by Dr. Diana Zuckerman at FDA Covid Vaccine Advisory Committee

October 22, 2020


I’m Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. Our center scrutinizes the safety and effectiveness of medical products, and we don’t accept funding from companies that make those products, although I’ve personally inherited stock in Johnson & Johnson. My expertise is based on post-doc training in epidemiology and as a faculty member and researcher at Vassar, Yale, at Harvard. I’ve also worked at HHS, the U.S. Congress and White House.

We’ve heard today that the agencies are doing many things right, but the vaccine trials have serious design flaws. The standards set in FDA guidances and the study protocols make it likely that vaccines that will be authorized or approved won’t achieve what the public and policy makers expect. Instead, these vaccines will only be proven to reduce the risk of mild infections but not proven to reduce the risk of hospitalization, ICU use, or deaths.

The major flaws are as follows:

  • The FDA’s proposed primary endpoint is defined as symptomatic Covid-19 that can include only 1 very mild symptom, such as a mild cough or sore throat – as long as the person has tested positive.
  • FDA’s requirement of at least 2 months median follow-up after vaccination or placebo is too short to study efficacy.  Even if a person is exposed during that time, we don’t know the correlates of protection and so we need a longer follow-up to know how long an effective vaccine remains effective.  We can’t rely on post-market studies for that information, because once a vaccine is on the market, many people in the placebo control group will switch to a vaccine.
  • We don’t know whether diversity of study participants will be achieved in terms of age, race, or co-morbidities, especially for people who are exposed to the virus.
  • The requirement of at least 5 serious Covid-19 cases in the placebo group is completely inadequate for 2 reasons:
    • Serious Covid-19 cases are too loosely defined, and could include a case of mild Covid-19 if the patient has a blood oxygen saturation under 93%. But thousands of otherwise healthy Americans have levels below that.
  • Even if the definition were more stringent, such as requiring hospitalization or death, and even if there were no such cases among the vaccinated patients, the absolute difference in disease between 0 and 5 serious cases would not be clinically meaningful to individuals and could easily have occurred by chance.

The American public has been told for months that life can go back to normal when we have a vaccine.  It isn’t FDA’s job to achieve that overly optimistic goal for any vaccine, but it is FDA’s job to make sure that a vaccine has meaningful benefits for the health and lives of most Americans, and especially those most at risk.

Testimony of Dr. Diana Zuckerman of NCHR before the FDA Advisory Committee on Pfizer COVID Vaccine

December 10, 2020


I’m Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

Our center scrutinizes the safety and effectiveness of medical products, and we don’t accept funding from companies that make those products. My expertise is based on post-doc training in epidemiology and as a previous faculty member and researcher at Vassar, Yale, and Harvard, and a fellow in bioethics at University of Pennsylvania.  I’ve also worked at HHS, the U.S. Congress and the White House.  

Today I will focus on 2 major concerns and how to improve the data:

#1:  The 2 month median follow-up is too short, so it’s essential that the randomized controlled trial be continued, to learn about long-term safety and efficacy.

#2:  There’s a lack of diversity in COVID cases:  There were 0 Black cases in the vaccine group, and only 7 Black cases in the placebo group.  

There were 0 cases who are ages 75+ in the vaccine group, 5 in placebo group  

We need more cases in these groups in order to understand the efficacy.  I’m concerned that conclusions will be inappropriately drawn, as when an article in the Wall Street Journal article included a chart saying the vaccine was 100% effective in Blacks.

THERE are also too few severe cases to draw conclusions:

There were only 4 severe cases after the 2nd dose:  3 of which were in the placebo group.  Not all these cases required hospitalization.  In summary, there are too few severe cases to draw conclusions about whether the vaccine prevents severe COVID.

Long-term care patients were not included in the study.  About 800 people ages 75 and older were in the study but only 5 were cases (all of them placebo).

We want to save their lives, but how can we ensure informed consent to nursing home patients with no data?  How many frail elderly or their family members can make an informed decision based on so little information?

We need longer-term data to fully understand if benefits outweigh the risks for frail patients and all races/ethnicities, and for everyone else as well.  That’s why it is essential that FDA ensure the continuation of the randomized controlled trial.

In conclusion, EUA is not approval and it should have more restrictions than approval would have:

  • FDA should require continuation of the RCT while targeting EUA to priority populations, especially healthcare workers.  Study participants in the placebo group should not “jump the queue.”  Continuing the RCT for at least a few more months will make an important difference in knowledge.
  • EUA should not allow off-label use, and celebrities and others should not be allowed to jump the queue.  Off label use could occur when urgently needed under FDA’s Expanded Access program.
  • FDA should delay access to vaccines by placebo group unless they are in priority populations.  I am concerned about the blinded crossover proposal, because if the vaccine is effective very long-term, such as 9 months or a year, we would lose that information if placebo participants were crossed over after just 3-9 months.   Blinded crossover would only provide useful information if the efficacy doesn’t last long.  Let’s hope that isn’t true. 

Dr. Diana Zuckerman’s Testimony on Moderna’s COVID Vaccine Before the FDA Advisory Committee

December 17, 2020.


I’m Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.  Thank you for the opportunity to speak today.

Our center scrutinizes the safety and effectiveness of medical products, and we don’t accept funding from companies that make those products. My expertise is based on post-doc training in epidemiology and as a previous faculty member and researcher at Vassar, Yale, and Harvard, and a fellow in bioethics at University of Pennsylvania.  I’ve also worked at HHS, the U.S. Congress and the White House.

Today I will focus on 3 major concerns:

#1:  The 2 month median follow-up is too short, so Moderna’s proposal to immediately unblind and offer to vaccinate the entire placebo group should be rejected.

#2:  Moderna made a good effort to include a diverse group of participants, but only 4 COVID cases were in Black patients, and there were even fewer in other racial groups.  We can’t assume that the vaccine was highly effective in demographic groups with so few cases because just 1 Covid case in the vaccinated group would have greatly reduced the efficacy rate.

The data on cases for participants with co-morbidities was slightly more substantial, with 24 placebo cases and only 1 vaccinated case

#3  I’m glad to see that unlike Pfizer, Moderna provided info on the total number of  participants who reported 1 or more adverse events.  That’s important.  Unfortunately, the total of severe systemic adverse events after the 2nd dose was over 17% for vaccinated group compared to 2% for the placebo group.

There are also too few severe cases to draw conclusions:

There were 30 severe cases after the 2nd dose, and none were in the vaccine group.  This is a strong finding.  However, only 9 of the severe cases required hospitalization; 12 involved the questionable criteria of at least slightly low blood oxygen saturation.

Long-term care patients were not included in the study.  About 1300 people ages 75 and older were in the study, almost half of them vaccinated, but only 3 were cases (all of them placebo).  Only 15 cases were in patients over 65.

We want to save their lives, but with no data it’s not possible to provide useful informed consent to nursing home patients.  That puts a tremendous burden on those patients and their family members to decide whether or not to be vaccinated.

We need longer-term data to fully understand the benefits and risks for different types of patients.  The vaccine is clearly effective, but does that last 2 months, 4 months, or a year?  We need to know that, and that’s why it is essential that the blinded randomized controlled trial is continued.

In conclusion, EUA is not approval, and it should have more restrictions than approval would have.  The EUA should be targeted to priority populations, because if the EUA applies to all adults, celebrities and others who are well-connected will cut in line.  We’ve already seen that this week.

Other people could apply for the vaccine under FDA’s Expanded Access program.

We need at least 1 year of blinded, randomized, controlled data.  We agree with Dr. Goodman’s proposal that FDA should delay access to vaccines by members of the placebo group unless they are in priority populations.  Blinded crossover has limitations because it can’t control changes in the community spread of the virus, but it is better than not continuing a blinded controlled study, if continuing the current study is not possible.

FDA Panel Reviewing Pfizer Vaccine Leaves Out Some Experts Who Raised Concerns

David Hilzenrath, Project on Government Oversight: December 9, 2020.


When an FDA advisory committee meets tomorrow to review Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine, the lineup of committee members will look different from the group that met in October to begin the committee’s discussion of coronavirus vaccines.

Four people who participated in the earlier meeting as temporary committee members, including experts who raised questions and expressed concerns about the testing process, do not appear on the “draft roster” of panelists the FDA has posted for tomorrow’s meeting.

Meanwhile, there will be new faces. The FDA has added 10 temporary committee members who did not participate in the earlier meeting.

The changes in the lineup raise concerns, Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, said in answer to questions from the Project On Government Oversight (POGO).

Zuckerman said experts might have been excluded to avoid tough questions about Pfizer’s data.

“It is not unusual for temporary members of FDA Advisory Committees to change, but seems surprising since the issues they are considering at the Oct meeting and tomorrow are so similar,” Zuckerman said by email.

Zuckerman’s organization analyzes the safety and effectiveness of pharmaceuticals and other medical products.

POGO asked the FDA whether the disappearance of some people from the advisory committee lineup had anything to do with any questions, concerns, or opinions they have expressed. In response, an FDA spokesperson did not directly answer.

The FDA routinely supplements advisory committees with temporary voting members, including “scientists or medical personnel whose expertise may not be represented by the fixed voting membership,” the FDA spokesperson said by email. “Many times, committees need to invite experts who are unrelated to the knowledge and expertise spelled out in the committee charter if a medical product or topic for discussion calls for a specific need for a particular expert,” the spokesperson added.

That does not seem to explain why the FDA would drop temporary voting members it selected to participate in the October meeting. At that meeting, without evaluating any particular vaccine, the committee advised the FDA on how in general it should approach experimental coronavirus vaccines.

Dr. Luigi Notarangelo, an expert on clinical immunology at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, was not invited to participate in the December 10 FDA advisory committee meeting on Pfizer’s coronavirus vaccine. He served as a temporary committee member when the panel met in October and minced no words then as he expressed general concerns about the testing of coronavirus vaccines.

[….]

POGO recapped his commentary at the October meeting in a November 2 story, “FDA Whitewashes Warnings About Coronavirus Vaccine Trials.”

As POGO reported:

Dr. Luigi Notarangelo, a committee member who is a chief researcher at the National Institutes of Health, minced no words as he articulated several of the critiques.

Notarangelo said measures of vaccine effectiveness included in an FDA document the committee was asked to review have two problems.
“First of all, they really are biased—skewed towards mild disease,” he said. “Mild disease may not mean very much.”
“The other problem with those efficacy measures is that most of them are really subjective,” he said. “And I think that’s a major concern. I mean, we’re relying basically upon reporting from the subjects without any objective validation of what they’re reporting.”

At the time, Notarangelo was not commenting specifically on Pfizer’s data.

Another person who served as a temporary member on October 22 but does not appear on the roster for tomorrow is Kathryn Holmes, a professor emerita in the Department of Immunology & Microbiology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

“One of the things I have not heard much about during this conversation is infection,” Holmes said at the October meeting. “I’d like to see how we could actually be measuring infection rather than just mild disease. … We should be looking to see what can prevent infection because that is the rubric which would prevent spread through the community most effectively and that is what would protect our elderly as well.”

Holmes could not be reached for comment for this story.

Another person who participated in the October meeting but is not slated to participate tomorrow is Dr. Michael Nelson, president of the American Board of Allergy and Immunology and a physician at Walter Reed Army National Military Medical Center.

At the October meeting, Nelson said “more real-time data might be needed.”

Nelson also noted that, when the acting chair of the committee summarized members’ comments, he omitted “a lot of concern” about an aspect of how vaccine effectiveness was being measured—whether it was focused inordinately on preventing milder cases.

Read the full article here

Four ways Trump has meddled in pandemic science — and why it matters

Giuliana Viglione, Nature: November 3, 2020


As the United States votes today on who will be its next president, Donald Trump’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic looms large. One issue that resonates with the research community is the extent to which the current president and his administration have meddled with science and scientific advice during the pandemic — often with disastrous results.

Last month, a coronavirus-crisis sub-committee within the US House of Representatives released a report documenting 47 instances in which government scientists had been sidelined or their recommendations altered. And the report notes that the frequency of meddling has been increasing in the lead-up to the US election.

“It’s hard to express how unbelievably demoralizing this experience has been,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a non-profit organization in Washington DC.

If Trump wins a second term, researchers fear what that could mean for public health and the scientific enterprise. If Democratic challenger and former vice-president Joe Biden wins, he’ll have his work cut out for him to restore the reputation of the US science agencies that Trump has damaged.

Nature chronicles some of the most significant cases of meddling so far, and assesses their impact.

Scientists sidelined, silenced and ignored

At a campaign rally this week, Trump suggested that if he were re-elected, he would fire much-revered and long-standing infectious-disease expert Anthony Fauci, who has led the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), since 1984. Fauci has earned international acclaim as an adviser on HIV/AIDS to six US presidents, and is one of the most-cited researchers in the world.

This display follows a pattern of Trump attempting to silence and discredit Fauci throughout the pandemic: in May, in an unprecedented move, the administration blocked Fauci from testifying about the US pandemic response in front of the Democrat-led House of Representatives’ appropriations committee. “Never in my 30-plus years here in Washington do I recall ever a White House refusing to let an NIH expert testify before Congress,” says Zuckerman. The White House did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

From cruise ships to asymptomatic spread: expert advice ignored

[….]

 

But Trump’s treatment of Fauci is just one example of the administration’s willingness to sideline its world-famous experts and institutions. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is a world-renowned health agency and typically plays a major role in tracking and responding to outbreaks. In previous crises, its scientists have issued advice and updates directly to the public through regular media briefings. But compared with previous global-health crises, experts at the CDC have been unusually quiet during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to an analysis by the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS) that was issued in May.

The report found that during the current pandemic, the CDC has held a much smaller proportion of press events than usual. For instance, during the H1N1 pandemic in 2009, the CDC led all but 3 of the 35 press conferences in the first 13 weeks of the pandemic. In contrast, Trump led close to three-quarters of the 69 press events during the same period of the COVID-19 outbreak. CNN reported that the lack of press briefings by the CDC on the coronavirus was due to pressure from the White House. “It is concerning that the scientists that are doing this great work are unable to talk,” says Anita Desikan, a research analyst at the UCS’s Center for Science and Democracy. The CDC did not respond to Nature’s request for comment.

[….]

In August, now-removed guidance appeared on the CDC’s website that stated that asymptomatic people no longer needed to be tested for the virus, counter to the recommendations of public-health experts. A senior CDC official told CNN that this guidance was issued “from the top down”; it was eventually reversed after public outcry. Officials outside the CDC have allegedly inserted their own documents on the CDC website in a move that Samuel Groseclose, a retired epidemiologist who spent 27 years at the agency, calls “bizarre”.

Revered public-health report delayed

The Trump administration has also attempted to meddle with a mainstay of the American public-health community: a weekly, peer-reviewed report that’s meant to facilitate the rapid release of epidemiological data. In September, Politico reported that political appointees in the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the CDC, had attempted to delay or halt the release of and retroactively edit the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (MMWR). Officials also demanded oversight before some results were published. The MMWR is “revered in the public-health community”, says Liz Borkowski, a public-health researcher at George Washington University in Washington DC, adding that she was “utterly horrified” to hear of the attempted meddling.

[….]

COVID treatments prematurely approved

Convalescent plasma, antibody-laden blood plasma from someone who survived COVID-19, was a promising treatment early in the pandemic. In August, the Trump administration leaned heavily on Food and Drug Administration (FDA) commissioner Stephen Hahn to issue an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the treatment despite a lack of solid evidence that it helps people, as reported by The New York Times and The Washington Post. The FDA issued the EUA, making plasma available to a wide swath of the US population. But evidence from a clinical trial in India1, posted in September, suggests that the treatment has no effect on patient outcomes. Earlier in the pandemic, the agency had to revoke its authorization of hydroxychloroquine, which Trump had touted as a “game changer” for COVID-19, because it, too, was subsequently shown to be ineffectual at treating the disease.

[….]

To many public-health experts, it is clear that the Trump administration’s persistent meddling is responsible for the disastrous way in which the pandemic has unfolded in the United States. “Some of it is probably real and some of it is probably supposition,” Georges Benjamin, the executive director of the American Public Health Association in Washington DC, says of the media reports about interference. “But at the end of the day, this has been one of the worst risk-communications processes that I’ve ever seen. And I think that’s tragic.”

doi: https://doi.org/10.1038/d41586-020-03035-4

References

  1. 1.

Agarwal, A. et al. Preprint at medRxiv https://doi.org/10.1101/2020.09.03.20187252 (2020).

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HEALTH CARE BRIEFING: FDA Vaccine Rules Challenged as Weak

Brandon Lee and Alex Ruoff, Bloomberg Government: October 23, 2020


U.S. vaccine advisers questioned whether safety and efficacy standards set by Food and Drug Administration officials were high enough to warrant emergency authorization of a shot.

About two dozen outside advisers to the FDA with expertise in infectious diseases met yesterday to weigh in on agency standards that require a vaccine to work in at least 50% of people and for drugmakers to collect two months of safety data on at least half of clinical trial volunteers.

“They haven’t gone far enough” in terms of safety, said Hayley Altman-Gans, a panel member and pediatrics professor at Stanford University Medical Center.

Many panel members and outside researchers who commented during the hearing worried that if a vaccine is rushed out that later turns out to have safety problems or to be less effective than promised, it could backfire in a big way, undermining public confidence in Covid-19 vaccines for years to come.

Several panel members expressed concern that the two-month safety follow-up the FDA is calling for before a vaccine gets an emergency authorization is simply not enough. In addition to safety, it means that doctors won’t know whether a vaccine’s efficacy could fade after just a few months.

Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Health Research told the committee the vaccine trials “have serious design flaws.”

The trials are too geared to preventing mild infections, and may not show whether they prevent severe infections and hospitalizations, she said. Longer follow up may be especially important because some of the first vaccines, including messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna, are based on new technologies that have never been used in an approved product. 

Read the full article here

FDA Vaccine Rules Challenged as Weak at Advisory Panel Meeting

Anna Edney and Robert Langreth, Bloomberg Business: October 22, 2020


About two dozen outside advisers to the FDA with expertise in infectious diseases met Thursday to weigh in on agency standards that require a vaccine to work in at least 50% of people and for drugmakers to collect two months of safety data on at least half of clinical trial volunteers.

“They haven’t gone far enough” in terms of safety, said Hayley Altman-Gans, a panel member and pediatrics professor at Stanford University Medical Center.

Many panel members and outside researchers who commented during the hearing worried that if a vaccine is rushed out that later turns out to have safety problems or to be less effective than promised, it could backfire in a big way, undermining public confidence in Covid-19 vaccines for years to come.

Archana Chatterjee, advisory panel member and dean of Chicago Medical School, said the public has a lot of concern about safety. Meanwhile, she added, “What we’re being asked to do is to build this plane as we fly it.”

Several panel members expressed concern that the two-month safety follow-up the FDA is calling for before a vaccine gets an emergency authorization is simply not enough. In addition to safety, it means that doctors won’t know whether a vaccine’s efficacy could fade after just a few months.

Panel member Amanda Cohn, who is chief medical officer at the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, worried that the efficacy of vaccines that just meet the 50% threshold after two months may see reduced effectiveness a few months later if the shot doesn’t offer a long period of protection.

“Very rarely do we look at [vaccine efficacy] so shortly after completing a series,” according to Cohn, whose organization is part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Design Flaws

The advisers weren’t alone in questioning the standards. Diana Zuckerman of the National Center for Health Research told the committee the vaccine trials “have serious design flaws.”

The two-month follow up the FDA has asked for is too short to establish how long a vaccine will work, and the trials are too geared to preventing mild infections, and may not show whether they prevent severe infections and hospitalizations, she said.

Longer follow-up may be especially important because some of the first vaccines, including messenger RNA vaccines from Pfizer Inc. and Moderna Inc., are based on new technologies that have never been used in an approved product.

The debate over the rigor of the FDA guidelines was one of two main issues debated before the committee, which heard comments from regulators, drugmakers and the public. The second questioned whether trial participants on a placebo should be advised when a vaccine is deemed to be safe and effective.

[…]

Read the full article here.

How the Coronavirus Pandemic May Affect Cancer Clinical Trials

Agata Boxe, Cancer Therapy Advisor: September 23, 2020


The health risks posed by SARS-CoV-2 to cancer patients have spurred changes in how cancer clinical trials are being conducted. Some of the alterations introduced by the National Cancer Institute (NCI) include using telemedicine visits, switching to electronic signatures for signing patient consent forms, shipping of oral medications to patients, and allowing researchers to skip collecting certain data. While the modifications may help to expand access to trials and lead to greater economic and geographic diversity of trial populations, they may also limit the amount of key information about the patient experience. Meanwhile, the pandemic itself may dissuade some groups of patients from enrolling in new trials altogether, thus negatively impacting the make-up of trial populations.

Like all other experts interviewed for this story, Hala Borno, MD, assistant clinical professor in the genitourinary oncology program at the University of California, San Francisco, was in favor of the changes that improved patient access to trials, such as the greater use of telemedicine. “In the context of a pandemic, there’s an opportunity to rethink the burdens that we place on patients and an opportunity to redesign the way in which we deliver cancer treatment in the context of the clinical trial,” Dr Borno said.

Dr Borno’s previous research showed that access to clinical trials was particularly challenging for disadvantaged social groups. Her 2018 study found that patients from lower‐income areas had to travel longer distances compared with patients from higher‐income areas to participate in cancer clinical trials. “What I observed is that patients coming from low-income neighborhoods are shouldering the largest burden of travel in order to participate in clinical research,” she said.

But the new measures may also lead to missing key information that is normally recorded during trials when they are conducted in person. Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C., noted potential complications with capturing the patient experience via videoconferencing compared to in-person visits. For example, it might be more difficult for researchers to notice potentially concerning symptoms that would otherwise be easy to see. “For example, if, as a doctor or researcher, I’m meeting with a patient in person, I might notice that they’re slumping in their chair or they look pale or they seem uncomfortable,” she said. “I might notice a lot of things about them that won’t necessarily be so obvious in a telehealth visit.”

Problems like bad lighting in a patient’s home may contribute to visibility issues. Children bursting into the room or a dog jumping on a patient’s lap may distract the patient from the purpose of the virtual visit. Finally, Dr Zuckerman wondered whether patients might not be as candid during online appointments as they would be during face-to-face visits about how they really feel while receiving treatment.

Jonathan Kimmelman, PhD, a professor and director of the biomedical ethics unit at McGill University in Montreal, said he wondered whether the decreased frequency of in-person interactions between patients and investigators might affect detection of adverse events.

[…]

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MLB’s return plan mirrors the Bundesliga’s. The key difference? It’s in the U.S., not Germany.

Jesse Dougherty: The Washington Post, June 3, 2020


One season is ending, another is beginning, and the intersection of the two — Major League Baseball and Bundesliga soccer — shows how risky it is to restart sports in the United States right now.

On Saturday, Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen will meet in the German Cup final in Berlin, capping a successful six-week schedule. Across the Atlantic Ocean and all over North America, MLB will begin summer camp during the novel coronavirus pandemic. The models for the two are similar in that, unlike the NBA, they are operating outside of a bubble, traveling between cities and having players, coaches and staff live at home.

But here’s a key difference: Germany’s response to the pandemic was much more successful — and much more proactive — than the United States’. It enabled the Bundesliga, the country’s top-tier soccer league, to resume in mid-May and handle sporadic coronavirus cases. Baseball, on the other hand, is about to make a similar attempt in a much different environment.

The United States topped 50,000 new daily cases for the first time Wednesday. That was more than a fourth of Germany’s total cases to date. Germany has had around 9,000 coronavirus deaths, and by mid-May, when soccer returned, it had almost completely flattened the curve.

“Germany was able to pull it off, but we are not Germany. Many of the markets that MLB wants to play in do not look like Germany,” said Zachary Binney, an epidemiologist at Oxford College of Emory University. “The baseline risk is much higher. So unfortunately, because of our response to covid-19, sports leagues need stricter return plans, and I don’t know that MLB has really wrestled with that yet.”

Both plans hinge on players, coaches, staff and their families being cautious and smart away from team facilities. That’s the reality of not playing inside a bubble, which the NBA will use in Florida to negate travel and limit exposure to the outside world. But MLB and the Bundesliga took near-opposite approaches for regulating off-site behavior.

MLB’s 113-page operations manual dedicated one paragraph to it, writing individuals “must exercise care,” adding that they should avoid restaurants, bars and other crowded areas. MLB left each team to craft and enforce its own policy. Four players, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to freely discuss a sensitive topic, said this is MLB’s way of avoiding responsibility should an outbreak occur.

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Here is where baseball picks up this weekend, starting with testing. Before training begins, all players, coaches and staff have to take a coronavirus test and self-quarantine while awaiting results. After that, they will be tested every other day. A lab in suburban Salt Lake City will be tasked with fielding thousands of tests and turning around results in “approximately 24 hours,” according to MLB’s operations manual. There is, however, already skepticism within the sport that results will come that quickly.

Before training began in Germany, players, coaches and staff did a week-long quarantine at a hotel. They ate meals separately and, each morning, completed a questionnaire to check for possible symptoms. Testing was frequent during that period, then slowed to around twice a week during the season. The Bundesliga contracted five labs to process results and, according to news accounts, was comfortable doing so because the country wasn’t stretched for resources.

Since the Bundesliga was the first league to return, it provided a template for how to play outside of a bubble. But environmental influences serve as the trickiest element there. Baseball’s plan, while similar, is less detailed in critical areas, according to public health experts, and set to unfold where the virus is still rampant.

“The biggest risk for baseball is location,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit think tank National Center for Health Research. “The greatest weakness of the plan is sending teams and having teams in states where the governor is unwilling to have strict rules.”

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