Tag Archives: covid 19

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. 

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FDA Panel To Lay Regulatory Groundwork For COVID-19 Vaccine


Noel King and Sydney Lupkin, NPR: October 22, 2020


NOEL KING, HOST:

There are several COVID-19 vaccines in development. But before they are approved, they have to be safe. It’s the FDA’s job to ensure that. Today an FDA advisory panel is meeting for the first time about the coronavirus vaccine. It’ll be making recommendations based not on politically motivated timetables, but on data.

Sydney Lupkin covers the pharmaceutical industry for NPR. Good morning, Sydney.

SYDNEY LUPKIN, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So what is the deal with this FDA panel? Who’s on it? What are they going to be doing?

LUPKIN: Well, the FDA regularly turns to committees of outside advisers for guidance. Most often, these panels are asked to evaluate specific drugs or health products, and that helps the agency to decide whether to approve these products. Today’s meeting of the committee that looks at vaccines is going to be a little different.

KING: How?

LUPKIN: Like everything else in this pandemic, it’s a bit unusual. The big difference is that the committee isn’t going to be sifting through data for a specific coronavirus vaccine like it normally would. The meeting will be a broader discussion of how the agency should think about safety and effectiveness of these new kinds of vaccines, particularly safety. Dr. Paul Offit is a committee member who works at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

PAUL OFFIT: How robust should safety data be? How long, for example, after the first or second dose should patients be followed or participants be followed for any possible safety issue?

LUPKIN: They’ll be discussing FDA’s existing guidance to companies, which includes some of that information. They’ll also discuss how studies should continue after the first vaccine is given the green light. What do you do for patients who got a placebo once a vaccine is widely available? Of course, the FDA usually heeds the advice of these committees, but it doesn’t have to.

KING: So since there’s no vaccine to review, I would think that in ordinary times, we would not know about this meeting. It would not be news at all. It’s very clear that the FDA wants to make public that this is happening. Why do they want to do that?

LUPKIN: Well, I mean, it gives the American public a window into the process. There’s been so much discussion around whether the FDA will put politics ahead of science. So it’s important to see what’s going on. And the FDA has questions that it wants answers to. Here’s Dr. Miles Braun, a former FDA epidemiologist.

MILES BRAUN: There is a level of humility that the FDA is coming to its advisers with. And I think that’s a good thing. And if they find out they’ve missed some important things, they’ll address those.

LUPKIN: Committee members will hear presentations from scientists at the FDA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority. The public will also have an opportunity to weigh in. Diana Zuckerman is the president of the National Center for Health Research, an advocacy group slated to speak.

DIANA ZUCKERMAN: We’ve seen the guidance of what they’re telling companies they’re supposed to be studying. Frankly, they’re not very stringent, so we are concerned about them.

LUPKIN: She hopes the meeting will delve into making sure the clinical trials are diverse, for example. She also questions whether the study approach the FDA suggested to manufacturers is long enough to assess vaccine safety.

[…]

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FDA Promises Strong Safety Standards for Covid-19 Vaccines as It Convenes Advisory Panel

Thomas M. Burton, Wall Street Journal: October 23, 2020


SILVER SPRING, Md.—Food and Drug Administration officials gave fresh assurances Thursday that Covid-19 vaccines will undergo rigorous testing before being made widely available—a message they underscored in a meeting with outside medical experts aimed at bolstering the agency’s credibility.

“Only those vaccines that are demonstrated to be safe and effective” will be licensed by the FDA, said Marion F. Gruber, director of the FDA’s Office of Vaccines Research and Review. But some speakers and panel members raised concerns about whether the FDA’s vaccine guidelines for Covid-19 clinical trials are sufficiently rigorous.

These comments came at the first meeting of a 25-member panel of medical experts, including specialists in fields like virology, infectious diseases and biostatistics. The group, which met remotely via video-conferencing, was  established to make recommendations to the FDA on how best to assess the safety and effectiveness of vaccines.

“The FDA frequently convenes outside panels of medical experts for their advice on products,” said Peter Marks, director of the FDA’s center for biological products. “But normally panels about vaccines are watched by dozens of people. In this case, it’s watched by many thousands.”

[….]

President Trump has pushed to get a vaccine approved quickly, which has drawn concern from some public health experts and political opponents that the FDA would be under pressure to bypass usual precautions to rush a vaccine to market quickly.

FDA officials have vowed not to do so. In addition to convening the advisory panel, they have issued a set of guidelines to govern how vaccine clinical trials will be conducted and evaluated.

They also formulated a set of rigorous standards for the FDA to employ before granting what is known as an emergency-use authorization (EUA) for a vaccine. The EUA is the faster equivalent during the Covid-19 pandemic of a conventional approval by the agency.

[….]

Various speakers questioned whether the shorter EUA test period was sufficient.

“The vaccine trials have serious design flaws,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research in Washington. In addition to the two-month period, she said FDA guidelines focus on measuring milder cases of the disease, and not the most serious cases.  

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.

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.

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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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. 

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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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