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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