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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.

[…]

Read the full article here

Do Lesbians Need Cervical Cancer Screening? What You Need to Know

Meg Seymour, PhD


Regular cervical cancer screening is an important way to prevent cervical cancer or detect it while it is still in the early stages and can be treated more easily.[1] Lesbians are less likely to get screened for cervical cancer than heterosexual and bisexual women, because many face barriers to accessing healthcare.[2] For example, they are less likely than heterosexual women to have a primary healthcare provider and are more likely to have negative experiences with healthcare providers, such as feeling discriminated against.[3,4] 

Another important reason why lesbians are not screened as often as other women is because many believe that they are less likely to get cervical cancer.[5] Some lesbians are erroneously told by their healthcare providers that they do not need cervical cancer screenings due to not having sex with men.[6] In fact, lesbians also develop cervical cancer and they have similar rates of cervical abnormalities to other women.[3] Cervical cancer screening is recommended for all women with a cervix, with no exceptions.[7] 

Can lesbians get cervical cancer?

Almost all cervical cancer is caused by human papillomavirus, commonly referred to as HPV.[8] HPV is the most common sexually transmitted infection (STI), and some strains of it can cause cancer.[9] HPV usually goes away by itself without causing any harm, but if it does not go away it can cause cancer. For more information about HPV and other STIs, you can read this article. (STIs are sometimes referred to as sexually transmitted diseases [STDs].)

Some lesbians believe the myth that HPV can only be transferred through men’s bodily fluids, so they falsely believe that they cannot get HPV or develop cervical cancer.[10] However, research has found that HPV can be transferred between women who are only having sex with other women[11]: through contact between genitals, oral contact with genitals, digital contact with genitals, and sharing sex toys.[12] The CDC notes that “the most reliable way to avoid transmission of STDs is to abstain from oral, vaginal, and anal sex or to be in a long-term, mutually monogamous relationship with a partner known to be uninfected.”[7] However, for those who are not interested in abstinence or who do not have a monogomous long-term partner, it is important to practice safe sex.[13] 

Additionally, many lesbians have had sex with men earlier in their lives, and they may have been infected with HPV from those male partners. It can take as much as 10-20 years for a woman to develop cervical cancer after she was first exposed to HPV,[14,15] Lesbians are able to contract HPV from either past sexual experiences with men or from current experiences with female sexual partners.  

Additional causes of cervical cancer

There is not conclusive research comparing the rate of cervical cancer among lesbians with the rate among other women. However, lesbians are more likely than heterosexual women to smoke, and smokers are twice as likely to get cervical cancer than non-smokers, because smoking makes it harder for the immune system to fight HPV.[14,16] If you are interested in information on how to quit smoking, you can read this article. 

Lesbians are also more likely than heterosexual women to have an imbalance of good and bad bacteria in the vagina that is called bacterial vaginosis[17], and researchers have found that HPV is more common among women who have bacterial vaginosis.[18] Bacterial vaginosis can sometimes lead to inflammation, causing health complications such as preterm birth or pelvic inflammatory disease. Bacterial vaginosis often does not cause any symptoms, but a common symptom is a “fishy” vaginal odor.[19]   

The bottom line

Lesbians should be sure to get the recommended cervical cancer screenings. Failure to have proper screening may delay a diagnosis of cervical cancer until the cancer has already progressed to a more advanced stage. This can lead to a greater likelihood of dying from the cancer.[20]

For more information on when women are recommended to get screenings, you can read this article. For information about HPV vaccines, you can read this article. 

 

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

The National Center for Health Research is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research, education and advocacy organization that analyzes and explains the latest medical research and speaks out on policies and programs. We do not accept funding from pharmaceutical companies or medical device manufacturers. Find out how you can support us here.

 

References: 

 

  1.     Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. What Should I Know About Screening? Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/cervical/basic_info/screening.htm. Updated August 2019. 
  2.     Takemoto ML, Menezes MD, Polido CB, Santos DD, Leonello VM, Magalhães CG, Cirelli JF, Knobel R. Prevalence of sexually transmitted infections and bacterial vaginosis among lesbian women: systematic review and recommendations to improve care. Cadernos de Saude Publica. 2019; 35:e00118118.
  3.     McNair RP. Lesbian health inequalities: a cultural minority issue for health professionals. Medical Journal of Australia. 2003; 178(12):643-5.
  4.     Tracy JK, Schluterman NH, Greenberg DR. Understanding cervical cancer screening among lesbians: a national survey. BMC Public Health. 2013 Dec 1;13(1):442.
  5.     British Broadcasting Corporation. Lesbian women cervical screening myth is ‘dangerous’. Bbc.com.  https://www.bbc.com/news/health-48802285#:~:text=The%20%22dangerous%20myth%22%20that%20gay,vast%20majority%20of%20cervical%20cancers.. 2019. 
  6.     Munson S, Cook C. Lesbian and bisexual women’s sexual healthcare experiences. Journal of Clinical Nursing. 2016; 25(23-24):3497-510.
  7.     Workowski KA, Bolan GA. Sexually transmitted diseases treatment guidelines, 2015. MMWR. Recommendations and reports: Morbidity and mortality weekly report. Recommendations and reports. 2015; 64(RR-03):1.
  8.     Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cancers Associated with Human Papillomavirus (HPV). Cdc.gov. https://www.cdc.gov/cancer/hpv/basic_info/cancers.htm#:~:text=Almost%20all%20cervical%20cancer%20is,cancer%20is%20caused%20by%20HPV. Updated November 2019. 
  9.     Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Genital HPV Infection – Fact Sheet. Cdc. gov. https://www.cdc.gov/std/hpv/stdfact-hpv.htm. Updated August 2019. 
  10. Curmi C, Peters K, Salamonson Y. Lesbians’ attitudes and practices of cervical cancer screening: a qualitative study. BMC Women’s Health. 2014; 14(1):2.
  11. Doull M, Wolowic J, Saewyc E, Rosario M, Prescott T, Ybarra ML. Why girls choose not to use barriers to prevent sexually transmitted infection during female-to-female sex. Journal of Adolescent Health. 2018; 62(4):411-6.
  12. Reiter PL, McRee AL. HPV infection among a population-based sample of sexual minority women from USA. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 2017; 93(1):25-31.
  13. McNair R. Risks and prevention of sexually transmissible infections among women who have sex with women. Sexual Health. 2005; 2(4):209-17.
  14. Waterman L, Voss J. HPV, cervical cancer risks, and barriers to care for lesbian women. The Nurse Practitioner. 2015 Jan 16;40(1):46-53.
  15. McGill University Division of Cancer Epidemiology. Facts about HPV. Mcgill.ca. https://www.mcgill.ca/hitchcohort/hpvfacts. 2020. 
  16. American Cancer Society. Risk Factors for Cervical Cancer. Cancer.org. https://www.cancer.org/cancer/cervical-cancer/causes-risks-prevention/risk-factors.html. Updated January 2020. 
  17. Evans AL, Scally AJ, Wellard SJ, Wilson JD. Prevalence of bacterial vaginosis in lesbians and heterosexual women in a community setting. Sexually Transmitted Infections. 2007; 83(6):470-5.
  18. Liang Y, Chen M, Qin L, Wan B, Wang H. A meta-analysis of the relationship between vaginal microecology, human papillomavirus infection and cervical intraepithelial neoplasia. Infectious Agents and Cancer. 2019; 14(1):1-8.
  19. Mayo Clinic. Bacterial vaginosis. Mayoclinic.org. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/bacterial-vaginosis/symptoms-causes/syc-20352279. Updated May 2019.
  20. JK, Lydecker AD, Ireland L. Barriers to cervical cancer screening among lesbians. Journal of Women’s Health. 2010 Feb 1;19(2):229-37.

Compounded Bioidentical Hormone Therapy

Keris KrennHrubec, Meg Seymour, & Diana Zuckerman, PhD


To avoid the risks of conventional hormone therapy, more and more women are seeking alternatives. But how safe are compounded bioidentical hormones?

When women enter menopause, their bodies produce less estrogen and progesterone. This can cause hot flashes, night sweats, insomnia and other symptoms. Hormone therapy can supplement those hormones, but it increases the risk of breast cancer and other serious diseases. What are your options if the symptoms of menopause are difficult to cope with?

In 2002, a major research study reported that FDA-approved hormone therapy can increase a woman’s risk of heart disease, breast cancer, and stroke. (For more information, please visit: Hormone Therapy and Menopause). As a result, women started to look for alternatives to conventional hormone therapy. Custom-compounded bioidentical hormone therapy (CBHT) has been marketed as more natural and safer, but does the scientific evidence support those claims?

Natural and Safe?

Many of the hormones used in conventional hormone therapy are derived from animal products. Bioidentical hormones, on the other hand, are from plants and are more similar (although not necessarily identical) to the hormones that naturally occur in the human body. However, the term “bioidentical” is misleading and has no scientific value. Bioidenticals are created in laboratories through at least 15 chemical reactions, and they are not identical to hormones produced by human bodies.[1,2] To date, no studies have shown that bioidenticals are safer than conventional hormone therapy and experts used to assume they have similar benefits and risks for patients.[3,4]

The FDA asked the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to form a committee that would assess whether cBHT is an adequate substitute for the traditional therapies that are FDA-approved. In 2020, the committee issued a report that there was not sufficient data to say that cBHT is a safe and effective treatment for menopause. Although some people have reported anecdotal claims that cBHT is safe and effective, these anecdotes are not scientific data.[5] 

The Pros and Cons of Compounding

Some bioidentical hormones (such as small particles of progesterone and estradiol) have been approved by the FDA,[1] but most are not. Instead, they are prescribed as a compound with ingredients that are mixed and blended by pharmacies to “create a customized medication for an individual patient”.[6,7] Since compounding is used to make individualized medication, it is not approved by the FDA. Compounding of some medications is necessary for some patients, such as patients who are allergic to one component of an approved drug or who need a particular dosage that differs from the FDA-approved medicine. However, since it is not monitored the way an FDA-approved drug is, compounded drugs are not proven to be safe or effective.[7]

Women who are considering compounded bioidentical hormones often start by getting their individual hormone levels checked through saliva or serum tests. This may create the impression that the bioidentical drugs will be customized for each patient, but research has not shown that these hormonal tests are meaningful or can ensure a safe or effective product.[1,3]

Risks Through Compounding

In addition to not being approved by the FDA as safe or effective, compounded drugs have an additional risk of being contaminated [3] or having an inaccurate dosage.[6] Either can be dangerous. Since compounded drugs are not FDA-approved, they also lack warnings on labels about possible side effects, including serious ones.[1,8] Several of the ingredients that are commonly used in bioidentical hormones – such as testosterone – have not been approved by the FDA for use for postmenopausal women.[3]

Despite these concerns, many women have been prescribed bioidentical hormones for menopause. That’s why the FDA announced in 2018 that they will expand research on compounded bioidentical hormone therapy.[9]

How Do I Know If My Hormone Therapy Has Been Compounded?

Compounded bioidentical drugs are legal if they are in response to a doctor’s prescription.[7] It is unlawful for a pharmacy to simply give you modified drugs without consent. However, even if it is legal, that doesn’t mean it will be safe or effective. If you have any questions or concerns about your hormone therapy, you should talk to your doctor or pharmacist.[10]

You can recognize FDA-approved hormone therapy by the use of brand names such as Premarin, Vagifem and Estrace. The bioidenticals micronized progesterone (brand name Prometrium) and estradiol (brand name Vivelle) have also been approved by the FDA. If your medication has been compounded, you will see terms such as estrone, estradiol, testosterone or progesterone instead of brand names. You are probably receiving CBHT if you have been asked for a saliva or serum test to establish an individualized treatment course.[1,2]

Traditional hormone therapy can be effective for menopausal symptoms, but can increase the risk of cancer and other serious diseases. Bioidentical hormones may have the same risks. You can find more information on the FDA-approved hormone therapies here.

 

All articles are reviewed and approved by Dr. Diana Zuckerman and other senior staff.

  1. American College of Obstetricians. (2012). Compounded bioidentical menopausal hormone therapy. Fertility and Sterility, 98(2), 308-312. (reaffirmed in 2018)
  2. Gass, M. L., Stuenkel, C. A., Utian, W. H., LaCroix, A., Liu, J. H., & Shifren, J. L. (2015). Use of compounded hormone therapy in the United States: report of the North American Menopause Society Survey. Menopause, 22(12), 1276-1285.
  3. Pinkerton, J. V., & Pickar, J. H. (2016). Update on medical and regulatory issues pertaining to compounded and FDA-approved drugs, including hormone therapy. Menopause (New York, NY), 23(2), 215.
  4. National Institute on Aging. (June 2017). Hot Flashes: What Can I Do? Retrieved from: https://www.nia.nih.gov/health/hot-flashes-what-can-i-do#risks
  5. The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine (July 2020). Report: The Clinical Utility of Compounded Bioidentical Hormone Therapy (cBHT) A Review of Safety, Effectiveness, and Use. Retrieved from: https://www.nap.edu/resource/25791/cBHT%20Consensus%20Study%20Report%20Highlights.pdf
  6. FDA (June 2018). Report: Limited FDA Survey of Compounded Drug Products. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/report-limited-fda-survey-compounded-drug-products
  7. FDA (June 2018). Compounding and the FDA: Questions and Answers. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/compounding-and-fda-questions-and-answers.
  8. FDA (June 2018). Compounding Oversight. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/human-drug-compounding/compounding-oversight
  9. FDA (September 2018). FDA announces new and expanded compounding research projects. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/drugs/drug-safety-and-availability/fda-announces-new-and-expanded-compounding-research-projects
  10. FDA (February 2018). Menopause: Medicines to Help You. Retrieved from: https://www.fda.gov/consumers/free-publications-women/menopause-medicines-help-you

Joint Letter Opposing Efforts to Weaken FDA’s Authority over Tobacco Products

July 7, 2020

The Honorable Nita Lowey
Chairwoman
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Washington, D.C. 20515

The Honorable Kay Granger
Ranking Member
Committee on Appropriations
United States House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Chairwoman Lowey and Ranking Member Granger:
As your committee proceeds to mark up the Fiscal Year 2021 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill, we urge you to oppose any efforts to weaken FDA’s authority over cigars or any other tobacco products.

Tobacco use is the leading cause of preventable death and disease in the United States. More than 480,000 Americans die from tobacco use each year, and more than 16 million Americans are currently living with a tobacco-caused disease. With the enactment of the Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act in 2009, Congress recognized that all tobacco products should be overseen by an agency with expertise in assessing health risks and experience promulgating science-based regulation.

Over the years, manufacturers and sellers of tobacco products have sought to exclude certain products from FDA’s authority or weaken FDA oversight of them, including through the appropriations process. Fortunately, Congress has not restricted FDA’s statutory authority. All  tobacco products pose risks to health and should adhere to science-based public health protections. As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic – a pandemic that impacts the lungs and has taken the lives of more than 100,000 Americans – surely now is not the time to weaken FDA oversight of tobacco products.

Manufacturers and sellers of certain types of cigars have argued that their products should not be overseen by FDA despite the agency’s determination that there is no appropriate public health justification for exempting them. While cigar smoking is often perceived as an activity of older adults, cigars are popular among youth, particularly high school boys. Cigars are marketed in a wide array of flavors and are often inexpensive, making them especially appealing to youth. Despite industry claims to the contrary, cigar use has serious negative health risks and can lead to lung and heart diseases and numerous types of cancer. FDA has determined that all cigars are potentially addictive and that cigar use leads to approximately 9,000 premature deaths each year.

We urge you to oppose any amendments to weaken FDA’s authority over cigars including an amendment that would add language that was adopted during the Energy and Commerce Committee’s consideration of H.R. 2339, the Reversing the Youth Tobacco Epidemic Act, that would have exempted certain cigars from having to undergo a public health review by FDA. Our organizations opposed this amendment when it was added to H.R. 2339 because it would restrict an important tool FDA now has to protect public health. Despite our opposition to this amendment, we continued to support the bill because other parts of the legislation – including a prohibition on all flavored tobacco products – would substantially reduce youth tobacco use and greatly benefit public health. That would not be the case if a similar amendment were adopted by this Committee.

In passing the Tobacco Control Act, Congress wisely recognized the addictive and deadly nature of tobacco products and the critical need for manufacturers to demonstrate that new products are “appropriate for the protection of public health.” Given their risks to health, no tobacco product should be exempt from FDA product review.

We thank you for not adopting any provisions during consideration of the FY 2020 Agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration, and Related Agencies Appropriations bill that would weaken FDA oversight of tobacco products, and we urge you to once again oppose any efforts to exempt cigars or any other tobacco products from FDA oversight during consideration of the FY 2021 bill.

Sincerely,

Action on Smoking & Health
African American Tobacco Control Leadership Council
Allergy & Asthma Network
American Academy of Nursing
American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Pathology
American Academy of Oral and Maxillofacial Radiology
American Academy of Otolaryngology- Head and Neck Surgery
American Academy of Pediatrics
American Association for Cancer Research
American Association for Dental Research
American Association for Respiratory Care
American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network
American College of Cardiology
American College of Chest Physicians (CHEST)
American College of Physicians
American College of Preventive Medicine
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Psychological Association
American Public Health Association
American Society of Addiction Medicine
American Thoracic Society
Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights
Asian Pacific Partners for Empowerment, Advocacy and Leadership (APPEAL)
Association for Clinical Oncology
Association of Black Cardiologists
Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health
Association of State and Territorial Health Officials (ASTHO)
Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids
Cancer Prevention and Treatment Fund
Catholic Health Association of the United States
ClearWay Minnesota
Community Anti-Drug Coalitions is America (CADCA)
COPD Foundation
Eta Sigma Gamma – National Health Education Honorary
LUNGevity Foundation
National African American Tobacco Prevention Network
National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO)
National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners
National Association of School Nurses
National Association of Social Workers
National Black Nurses Association
National Education Association
National Network of Public Health Institutes
Oncology Nursing Society
Parents Against Vaping E-Cigarettes (PAVe)
Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions
Students Against Destructive Decisions (SADD)
The Society of State Leaders of Health and Physical Education
The Society of Thoracic Surgeons
CC: United States House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations Members

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.

[….]

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.”

Read the full article here

DOT Wants to Weaken Its Own Power to Penalize Airlines Over Consumer Complaints

Amy Marten: Fair Warning June 1, 2020


With enforcement against airlines for consumer violations already falling sharply, the Department of Transportation is pushing for a rule change that consumer groups and some lawmakers say would serve no other purpose than further protecting airlines from civil fines.

The proposed change, announced in February, would require the DOT to use a more rigid definition of “unfair and deceptive practices” when investigating consumer complaints against airlines. The rule would also allow airlines to call for additional hearings when defending complaints or when facing future regulations.

Under Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao, the agency already is taking a more hands-off approach to complaints by air travelers, with enforcement actions on a sharp downward trend. In 2019, the DOT’s Aviation Consumer Protection Division issued eight enforcement orders against airlines, a record low and half as many as it issued the previous year, an agency database shows. The previous record low was nine enforcement orders, set in 2000, according to The Washington Post.

This year has also seen few cases, with three civil penalties imposed on airlines so far in 2020 totalling $850,000.

The DOT acknowledges in its proposal that it could be “performing fewer enforcement and rulemaking actions” under the rule. The agency credits Airlines for America, the lobbying organization that represents the nation’s major airlines, for suggesting the change. The industry group had complained that it had been subject to aggressive regulatory activity over the years, even for “minor infractions, inadvertent errors, or isolated incidents,” according to the DOT’s summary of the request.

“The value of this proposal is that DOT will need to explain…the reasons why it believes a practice is ‘unfair’ or ‘deceptive,’” Airlines for America said in a statement to FairWarning.

Few outside the industry would argue that airlines are being burdened by excessive regulations, especially with the free-for-all that has characterized air travel during the Covid-19 crisis.

In a June 10 letter to Chao blasting the proposal, Senators Edward Markey, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin and Richard Blumenthal, all Democrats, cited the recent decline in enforcement and thousands of consumer complaints since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, many about airlines’ refusal to pay refunds.

[…]

Even as infection rates are on the rise in the U.S., some carriers are starting to abandon voluntary measures to prevent the spread of disease, such as leaving the middle seat open to allow for social distancing. This week, American Airlines announced that it would resume selling planes at full capacity. The airline justified the plan by saying it would require enhanced cleaning and face coverings. “With all of these layers of protection, we are comfortable removing the load factor cap,” American Airlines said in an email to FairWarning.

But the airline refused to say whether the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had vetted its plan to allow full planes. Instead, American Airlines said that its safety plan is accredited by ISSA, a trade group for corporations that sell cleaning products, such as 3M and Procter & Gamble.

“Having a certification from an industry group is not the same thing as having met the standards of the CDC or the NIH [National Institutes of Health] or any other objective agency,” Dr. Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research, said in an interview. 

Read the full article here

We can’t ever go to the doctor with our guard down’: Why Black women are 40% more likely to die of breast cancer

Maria Aspan: Fortune Magazine June 30, 2020


Racism kills Black Americans, and has long before COVID-19. But its toxic combination with sexism has particularly vast and disastrous consequences for the health of Black women.

While Black people in the U.S. are dying from the COVID-19 pandemic at a disproportionately high rate, this national health crisis underlines an even grimmer status quo: Black Americans are also much more likely to die from far more common and longstanding health problems every day. Black women are at particularly high risk of heart disease and strokes, and are at least three times as likely to die as a result of childbirth as white women, contributing to the overall alarmingly high maternal mortality rate in the United States.

Then there are the shocking statistics around breast cancer, which affects one in every eight women and is the most common non-skin cancer affecting women. Black women are less likely to develop it—but 40% more likely to die from it than white women, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The reasons behind this awful disparity are wide-ranging, and include systemic problems both within healthcare and far beyond it. Now the disproportionately high toll of COVID-19 on the Black population in the U.S. and the simultaneous national reckoning over racism are drawing new attention to the racial inequities hurting Black women—and amplifying the voices of doctors, scientists, and public health experts who have long sounded the alarm.

[…]

Women of all races could be legally omitted from government-funded clinical trials before 1993, and are still often under-represented in most research studies of conditions that affect them. Pregnancy and menstrual cycles are thought to “complicate” the results of trials that are mostly conducted on white men, who are seen as the “norm.”

This can obviously backfire. In 2013, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration sharply cut its recommended dosages of Ambien for women, after years of complaints about grogginess and falling asleep while driving, when followup tests showed that women metabolized the active ingredient in sleeping aids much more slowly than men.

When it comes to clinical trials funded by pharmaceutical companies, “the FDA encourages but does not require diversity in clinical trials,” says Diana Zuckerman, a scientist and president of the National Center for Health Research. “Worse, the agency frequently approves drugs and devices for all adults, even if they were primarily studied on white adults.”

One treatment that the FDA approved in April, for the “triple-negative” type of breast cancer that disproportionately affects Black women, was approved after being tested on 108 patients. Eight of them, or 7%, were Black. Another breast-cancer treatment was approved last year after being tested on 234 patients; seven of them, or 3%, were Black.

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CRS: Congress Can Rein In FDA’s Flexible COVID-19 Vaccine Trial Policies

Beth Wang, Inside Health Policy: June 03, 2020


The Congressional Research Service says Congress could rein in FDA’s broad discretionary authority over vaccine clinical trial policies by legislating how the agency and Institutional Review Boards approach clinical trial designs and reviews for the current COVID-19 pandemic, as well as for future emergencies. In a Tuesday (June 2) report, CRS suggests Congress could provide more specific direction to FDA and IRBs on how to approach clinical trials in emergency situations, and also could appoint a neutral scientific body to consider ethical and scientific issues as well as general guidelines for trials. Congress also could fund global collaboration among regulators, and provide additional funding and resources to facilitate clinical trials, the report suggests, echoing recent calls from lawmakers who have said the United States should get involved with global efforts to fund and develop COVID-19 vaccines and treatments.

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, applauded CRS for explaining the vaccine approval process to Congress and for telling lawmakers what their options are so Congress can, in Zuckerman’s words, “ensure a better outcome than we’ve seen with the disastrous coronavirus testing situation (in terms of accuracy, transparency, and availability).” The document, she told Inside Health Policy, does a good job of explaining that FDA has authority to lower approval standards for any drug or vaccine unless Congress steps in. “[B]ased on FDA’s actions of the last 3 months, it seems likely that they will do so in ways that could create the free-for-all that currently exists for coronavirus testing,” Zuckerman wrote in an email. “So the CRS is telling Congress that legislation is the option they have if they want to ensure a better outcome.”

Existing law, CRS says, requires FDA and IRBs to weigh considerations about safety and effectiveness against the desire to bring products to market quickly when evaluating proposed clinical trial designs for vaccines.

[…]

Congress previously told FDA what to do in the drug trial and approval space through passage of the 21st Century Cures Act, but FDA was given leeway in how to interpret the law, Zuckerman explained. “It pushed FDA in a particular direction but still gave the FDA the authority to rely on the agency’s subjective judgment,” she said. If Congress were to step in and tell FDA what it should do, it would be a radical departure, Zuckerman added. “[But it’s] probably necessary given FDA’s response to the pandemic so far, and the Administration’s track record of ignoring Congress when it suits them,” she said.

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Hahn Defends Using Less ‘Robust’ Data During COVID, But Critics Contend It Has Gone Too Far

Sarah Karlin-Smith, Informa Pharma Intelligence: June 04, 2020


[…]

Anecdotes Are Not Data Sets

The regulatory flexibility touted by Hahn was embraced to some degree by even some of the agency’s most notable critics, who agreed that the nature of the COVID-19 pandemic should allow for a different pace of decision making than under normal circumstances. However, they said they were concerned that FDA is misusing such flexibility, particularly when it came to the emergency use authorization (EUA) for hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine.

“I agree with Dr. Hahn that in emergency situations it makes sense to move quickly and change course quickly if the evidence is different from what was hoped for. But the only justification for making [hydroxychloroquine] immediately widely available was that President Trump had ‘a good feeling about it,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

The EUA was granted based on laboratory data and anecdotal clinical reports. (Also see “FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization for Malaria Drugs Could Hinder Trials of Other COVID-19 Treatments” – Pink Sheet, 30 Mar, 2020.)

Zuckerman described this not as datasets but as anecdotal evidence. “Scientists don’t call anecdotal evidence datasets. As any scientist can tell you, the plural of anecdote is ‘anecdotes’ not ‘data,”” Zuckerman said.

In an emergency situation “making decisions on the fly and using the best data that you have is inevitable,” but the agency should follow certain principles when it does this, said Aaron Kesselheim, the director of the Program on Regulation, Therapeutics and Law at Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Kesselheim’s third principle was that the FDA should revisit or revise these decisions just as quickly as they made them when new information emerges. He said the FDA has done a good job in some circumstances of adhering to these principles and done less well in others.

As Hahn mentioned in his speech, the agency has reversed some of its early EUAs for COVID-19 tests. (Also see “FDA Yanks Potentially Faulty COVID-19 Antibody Tests – And More May Be On The Chopping Block” – Medtech Insight, 22 May, 2020.)

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Allergan is trying to track down women with breast implants it recalled nearly a year ago

Maria Aspan, Fortune: June 03, 2020


More than 10 months after recalling some of its breast implants, Allergan is making a new effort to find tens of thousands of women who still have the dangerous devices.

The pharmaceutical company, now owned by AbbViesaid this week that it will launch a digital and social media ad campaign to alert patients about the July 2019 recall of its textured Biocell implants. Those implants have been linked in academic studies to a sometimes-fatal cancer known as BIA-ALCL, for “breast implant–associated anaplastic large cell lymphoma.” More than 33 women have now died from BIA-ALCL.

Allergan’s announcement comes two weeks after Fortune published an investigation into the persistent problems with breast implants and the health risks, including BIA-ALCL, they have created for millions of women worldwide. These risks have been amplified by decades of inadequate study and problems that were hidden by breast implant manufacturers, as well as the generally poor tracking of medical devices, our investigation found.

Many women affected by Allergan’s Biocell recall told Fortune that they found out about it through social media or news reports, rather than directly from the company or the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which requested the recall.

On Monday, Allergan acknowledged that it does not have device-tracking information for some 52,000 Biocell breast implants. Despite “robust efforts” to reach patients since last July, “the company is still seeking to directly contact all U.S. Biocell patients that have not yet been notified,” Allergan said in a press release.

“We are continuing to make every effort to make sure that each and every patient is made aware of the Biocell recall, and knows their implant type and implant history,” John Maltman, Allergan’s vice president of medical affairs, said in the release.

A company spokesperson did not respond to a request for more specifics about when the ad campaign would launch, or what exactly it would entail. And longtime critics of breast implant safety greeted Allergan’s announced plans with skepticism.

“I don’t know how visible it’s going to be,” says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research. “Will the kind of money and effort be put into this in a way that’s comparable to ad campaigns when they’re selling something?

The new ad campaign appears to be at the behest of the FDA, which “asked Allergan to develop a strategy to contact patients who may not have heard about the recall,” an agency spokesperson told Fortune by email on Tuesday, adding that the FDA “is working with Allergan to amplify the message and outreach related to its July 2019 voluntary recall of certain breast implants.”

This is the latest of several actions the FDA has taken on breast implant safety in the wake of Fortune’s investigation. Last month, after speaking with Fortune, the FDA sent a warning letter to Allergan over its longtime failure to comply with regulatory requirements for selling its implants. At the same time, the agency also sent a letter to a smaller manufacturer warning about manufacturing and quality-control issues.

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