Tag Archives: covid

How Fauci and the NIH Got Ahead of the FDA and CDC in Backing Boosters

Sarah Jane Tribble and Arthur Allen, KHN: September 16, 2021


In January — long before the first jabs of covid-19 vaccine were even available to most Americans — scientists working under Dr. Anthony Fauci at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases were already thinking about potential booster shots.

A month later, they organized an international group of epidemiologists, virologists and biostatisticians to track and sequence covid variants. They called the elite group SAVE, or SARS-Cov-2 Variant Testing Pipeline. And by the end of March, the scientists at NIAID were experimenting with monkeys and reviewing early data from humans showing that booster shots provided a rapid increase in protective antibodies — even against dangerous variants.

Fauci, whose team has closely tracked research from Israel, the United Kingdom and elsewhere, said in an exclusive interview with KHN on Wednesday that “there’s very little doubt that the boosters will be beneficial.” But, he emphasized, the official process, which includes reviews by scientists at the Food and Drug Administration and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, needs to take place first.

“If they say, ‘We don’t think there’s enough data to do a booster,’ then so be it,” Fauci said. “I think that would be a mistake, to be honest with you.”

The support for an extra dose of covid vaccine clearly emerged, at least in part, from an NIH research dynamo, built by Fauci, that for months has been getting intricate real-time data about covid variants and how they respond to vaccine-produced immunity. The FDA and CDC were seeing much of the same data, but as regulatory agencies, they were more cautious. The FDA, in particular, won’t rule on a product until the company making it submits extensive data. And its officials are gimlet-eyed reviewers of such studies.

On boosters, Americans have heard conflicting messages from various parts of the U.S. government. Yet, Fauci said, “there is less disagreement and conflicts than seem to get out into the tweetosphere.” He ticked off a number of prominent scientists in the field — including Surgeon General Vivek Murthy, acting FDA Commissioner Janet Woodcock and covid vaccine inventor Barney Graham — who were on board with his position. All but Graham are members of the White House covid task force.

Another task force member, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, said her agency was tracking vaccine effectiveness and “we’re starting to see some waning in terms of infections that foreshadows what we may be seeing soon in regard to hospitalizations and severe disease.” As to when so-called boosters should start, she told PBS NewsHour on Tuesday, “I’m not going to get ahead of the FDA’s process.”

Differences in the scientific community are likely to be voiced Friday when the FDA’s vaccine advisory board meets to review Pfizer-BioNTech’s request for approval of a third shot. Indeed, even the FDA’s official briefing paper before the meeting expressed skepticism. “Overall,” agency officials noted, “data indicate that currently US-licensed or authorized COVID-19 vaccines still afford protection against severe COVID-19 disease and death.” The agency also stated that it’s unclear whether an additional shot might increase the risk of myocarditis, which has been reported, particularly in young men, following the second Pfizer and Moderna shots.

Part of the disagreement arose because President Joe Biden had announced that Americans could get a booster as soon as Sept. 20, a date Fauci and colleagues had suggested to him as practical and optimal in one of their frequent meetings just days before — though he cautioned that boosters would need CDC and FDA approval.

Now it appears that that decision and the timing rest with the FDA, which is the normal procedure for new uses of vaccines or drugs. And Fauci said he respects that process — but he thinks it should come as quickly as possible. “If you’re doing it because you want to prevent people from getting sick, then the sooner you do it, the better,” Fauci said.

Researchers at the NIH typically focus on early-stage drug development, asking how a virus infects and testing ways to treat the infection. The job of reviewing and approving a drug or vaccine for public use is “just not how the NIH was set up. NIH does relatively little research on actual products,” said Diana Zuckerman, a former senior adviser to Hillary Clinton and president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research in Washington, D.C.

“It’s no secret that FDA doesn’t have the disease experts in the way that the NIH does,” Zuckerman said. “And it’s no secret that the NIH doesn’t have the experts in analyzing industry data.”

‘Data in Spades’

Yet no other infectious disease expert in any branch of the U.S. government has Fauci’s influence. And while other scientific leaders support boosters, many scientists believe Fauci and his colleagues at the NIAID — some of the world’s leaders in immunology and vaccinology, men and women in daily contact with their foreign peers and their research findings — are leading the charge.

Fauci was hard-pressed to give exact dates for when his thinking turned on the need for boosters. The past 18 months are a blur, he said. But “there’s very little doubt that the boosters will be beneficial. The Israelis already have that data in spades. They boost, they get an increase by tenfold in the protection against infection and severe disease.”

In July, Israel, which started vaccinating its population early and used only the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, began reporting severe breakthrough cases in previously vaccinated elderly people. Israel’s Ministry of Health announced boosters July 29. Fauci noted that Israel and — to a lesser extent — the U.K. were about a month and a half ahead of the U.S. at every stage of dealing with covid.

And once Israel had boosted its population, the Israeli scientists showed their NIH counterparts, hospitalizations of previously vaccinated people, which had been rising, dropped dramatically. Emerging evidence suggests boosters make people far less likely to transmit the virus to others, an important added benefit.

To be sure, members of the White House covid response team — including Fauci and former FDA Commissioner David Kessler — had begun preparing a timeline for boosters months earlier. Kessler, speaking to Congress in May, said that it was unclear then whether the boosters would be needed but that the U.S. had the money to purchase them and ensure they were free.

Fauci explained that “practically speaking, the earliest we could do it would be the third week in September. Hence the date of the week of September the 20th was chosen.” The hope was that would give regulators enough time. The FDA’s advisory board meeting Friday is set to be followed next week by a gathering of the CDC’s immunization advisory committee, which offers recommendations for vaccine use that can lead to legal mandates.

[….]

Real-Time Science

Scientists tracking the coronavirus are swimming in data. Hundreds of covid studies are published or released onto pre-publication servers every day. Scientists also share their findings on group email lists and in Zoom meetings every week — and on Twitter and in news interviews.

Kessler, chief science officer of the White House covid response team, said the case for boosters is “rooted in NIH science” but includes data from Israel, the Mayo Clinic, the pharmaceutical companies and elsewhere.

As Fauci put it: “Every 15 minutes, a pre-print server comes out with something I don’t know.”

The SAVE group, active since February, was organized by NIH officials who in normal times track influenza epidemics. The 60 to 70 scientists are mostly from U.S. agencies such as the NIH, CDC, FDA and Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, but also from other countries, including Israel and the Netherlands.

“This is very much the basic scientists who are in the weeds trying to figure things out,” said Dr. Daniel Douek, chief of the human immunology section within NIAID.

[….]

Dr. Robert Seder, an NIH senior investigator, was in a group testing the booster theory long before America’s “Summer of Delta.” The researchers injected rhesus macaque monkeys with the Moderna vaccine for the “express purpose of looking at the immune responses over a long period of time.”

“Are they durable? And would you need to boost?” Seder said.

Matthew Frieman, a participant and associate professor of microbiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said the data makes it clear that the time for boosters is approaching. Biden’s booster announcement “may have gotten ahead of the game, but the trajectory is pointing toward the need for boosters,” Frieman said. “The level of antibody you need to protect against delta is higher because it replicates faster.”

[….]

Monday, an international group of scientists led by Dr. Philip Krause, deputy chief of the FDA’s vaccine regulation office, and including his boss, Dr. Marion Gruber, published an essay in The Lancet that questioned the need for widespread booster shots at this time.

Krause and Gruber had announced their retirements from the FDA on Aug. 30 — at least partly in response to the booster announcement, according to four scientists who know them. Gruber, who will remain at the agency until later this fall, is listed as a participant in Friday’s meeting.

The Lancet paper argues that vaccine-based protection against severe covid is still strong, while evidence is lacking that booster shots will be safe and effective. University of Florida biostatistician Ira Longini, a co-author on the Lancet paper, said it would be “immoral” to begin widespread boosters before the rest of the world was better vaccinated. As the disease continues its global spread, he noted, it is likely to develop deadlier and more vaccine-evasive mutants.

Longini was also skeptical of an August study, which Israeli scientists are to present to the FDA on Friday, that NIH officials had touted as strong evidence in support of boosters. …That study found that people receiving a third dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine were 11 times more likely to be protected from covid infection than those who had gotten only two doses. But the study observed people for less than two weeks after their booster vaccinations kicked in. Biostatisticians felt it had irregularities that raised questions about its worth.

[….]

Fauci emphasized that no single study or piece of data led Biden or the members of the White House covid response team to conclude that boosting was necessary. The compilation of evidence of waning immunity combined with reams of research was a factor. Now the crucial decisions are in the hands of the regulators, awaiting the FDA and CDC’s judgment on how the nation should proceed.

“It isn’t as if,” Fauci said, “one day we’re sitting in the Oval Office saying, ‘You know, Mr. President, I think we need to boost.’ And he says, ‘Tony, go ahead and do it.’ You can’t do it that way. You’ve got to go through the process.”

To read the entire article, click here.

Covid-19: FDA set to grant full approval to Pfizer vaccine without public discussion of data

Gareth Iacobucci, BMJ: August 20, 2021


Transparency advocates have criticised the US Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) decision not to hold a formal advisory committee meeting to discuss Pfizer’s application for full approval of its covid-19 vaccine.

Last year the FDA said it was “committed to use an advisory committee composed of independent experts to ensure deliberations about authorisation or licensure are transparent for the public.”1 But in a statement, the FDA told The BMJ that it did not believe a meeting was necessary ahead of the expected granting of full approval.

“The FDA has held numerous meetings of its Vaccines and Related Biological Products Advisory Committee (VRBPAC) related to covid-19 vaccines, including a 22 October 20202 meeting to discuss, in general, the development, authorisation, and licensure of covid-19 vaccines,” an FDA spokesperson said.

“The FDA also has held meetings of the VRBPAC on all three covid-19 vaccines authorised for emergency use and does not believe a meeting is needed related to this biologics license application.”

The spokesperson added, “The Pfizer BioNTech covid-19 vaccine was discussed at the VRBPAC meeting on 10 December 2020.3 If the agency had any questions or concerns that required input from the advisory committee members we would have scheduled a meeting to discuss.”

The vaccine has already been rolled out to millions of Americans through an emergency use authorisation. Companies typically apply for full approval after a longer period has elapsed so that more data are available for review.

But with the US government indicating this week that it plans to start making booster shots widely available next month, experts said the decision not to meet to discuss the data was politically driven.

Data scrutiny

 Kim Witczak, a drug safety advocate who serves as a consumer representative on the FDA’s Psychopharmacologic Drugs Advisory Committee,4 said the decision removed an important mechanism for scrutinising the data.

“These public meetings are imperative in building trust and confidence especially when the vaccines came to market at lightning speed under emergency use authorisation,” she said. “The public deserves a transparent process, especially as the call for boosters and mandates are rapidly increasing. These meetings offer a platform where questions can be raised, problems tackled, and data scrutinised in advance of an approval.”

[….]

Public discussion

Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, who has also spoken at recent VRBPAC meetings, told The BMJ, “It’s obvious that the FDA has no intention of hearing anyone else’s opinion. But if you make decisions behind closed doors it can feed into hesitancy. It’s important to have a public discussion about what kind of data are there and what the limitations are. As we think about risk versus benefit, we need to know.”

Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean for public health practice and community engagement at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health and former FDA deputy commissioner during the Obama administration, said that advisory committee meetings were more than just a way of receiving scientific input from outside experts. “It’s also an opportunity to educate the public about the important work that the FDA has done reviewing an enormous amount of data about a product,” he told The BMJ. “It’s a chance for questions to be asked and answered, building public confidence. If there are no advisory committee meetings prior to licensure, the FDA should consider taking extra steps to explain the basis of its decisions to the public.”

[….]

To read the entire article, click here https://www.bmj.com/content/374/bmj.n2086

The Differences Between the Vaccines Matter

Hilda Bastian, The Atlantic: March 7, 2021


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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

 

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

To read the entire article, click here

Drug Industry Pushes FDA to Solve Growing Inspection Backlog

Suzanne Smalley, Politico: March 2, 2021


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

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

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

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

[….]

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

[….]

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

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

[….]

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

[….]

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

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

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

 

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

[….]

Weakened Standards?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read the entire article here. 

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

Tina Hesman Saey, ScienceNews: February 27, 2021


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

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

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

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

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

[….]

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

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

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

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

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

[….]

To read the entire article, click here.

A C.D.C. analysis describes anaphylaxis after people have received the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine as ‘rare’

Roni Caryn Rabin, New York Times: January 11, 2021


Any site that administers the currently authorized vaccines must be prepared to recognize and treat a severe allergic reaction that may occur, though it is “a rare outcome,” federal health officials said.

Of the nearly 2 million Americans who received coronavirus vaccinations developed by Pfizer and BioNTech during a 10-day stretch last month, 21 experienced a serious and potentially life-threatening allergic reaction called anaphylaxis, federal health officials said Wednesday.

Although the risk is ten times higher than the risk for anaphylaxis after a seasonal flu vaccine, officials described the reaction as “a rare outcome.”

The rate of anaphylaxis following vaccination was estimated to be 11.1 per million doses administered, compared with 1.3 cases of anaphylaxis per million doses of influenza vaccine administered, officials said.

“We know that safety is one of the public’s biggest concerns about the Covid vaccine,” said Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“The anaphylaxis rate may seem high compared to the flu vaccine, but I want to reassure you: This is still a rare outcome.”

Any site that administers the vaccine must be prepared to recognize and treat a severe allergic reaction that may occur, federal health officials said. And though there is less information about reactions to the Moderna vaccine than to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, Dr. Messonnier said, “At this point we really don’t have enough data to say there’s any difference in the risks, so the recommendations apply to both.” Recipients who experience anaphylaxis after receiving the first dose of the vaccine should not receive the second dose, officials said.

Other than the anaphylaxis reactions, which occurred shortly after vaccination, “Our vaccine safety systems haven’t picked up any worrisome signals,” Dr. Messonnier added. “The known and potential benefits of the Covid vaccine outweigh the risk of getting Covid-19.”

The C.D.C.’s analysis of adverse reactions, published on Wednesday, included only those to the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine administered between Dec. 14 and Dec. 23.

[…]

The vast majority of anaphylaxis reactions — 90 percent — occurred in women, who made up slightly more than half of vaccine recipients. A surprising number of those who went into anaphylaxis — 14 of the 21 — had never experienced an anaphylactic reaction prior to receiving the vaccine, and four had no known allergies at all.

Of the 21 who had reactions, 20 had recovered or been discharged home, and information was lacking on one individual. Nineteen were treated with epinephrine, and four were hospitalized, including three in intensive care. Seventeen were treated in an emergency department.

The C.D.C. said it was still investigating another seven reports of anaphylaxis following the vaccine, which have not been confirmed. The Vaccine Adverse Event Reporting System also identified 83 cases of nonanaphylaxis allergic reactions after the Pfizer-BioNtech vaccination; these people developed symptoms like rash and mild respiratory symptoms within a day of receiving the vaccine.

Among the 21 vaccine recipients who experienced anaphylaxis, 17 were known to have allergies to a variety of triggers, including foods, insects, pets and medications. The median time for anaphylactic reaction was 13 minutes after immunization, but one patient developed the reaction two and a half hours afterward.

Patients with known allergies have been warned to bring an epinephrine injector when they get vaccinated, and providers have been advised to keep patients with allergies for observation for 30 minutes following inoculation.

The new information is disconcerting, said Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research.

“The flaw in the system is that there was a small number of people who had a reaction 30 minutes or later,” she said. “It’s one thing to say everybody should hang around for 15 minutes. But the range was up to 150 minutes, and people aren’t going to hang around that long.”

To read entire article, see https://www.nytimes.com/live/2021/01/06/world/covid-19-coronavirus

Congressman calls for FDA to continue vaccine trials

D’Andre Henderson, ABC News: December 29, 2020.


WASHINGTON, D.C. (WRIC) — Americans are hopeful that the COVID-19 vaccines will make 2021 a better year than 2020. However, there are concerns that Pfizer and Moderna will stop their clinical trials and immediately treat everyone in their placebo group.

Some scientists, doctors and now a Congressman argues that can be dangerous because they said there is still so much unknown about the vaccines.

Rep. Llyod Doggett of Texas wrote a letter to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) urging for the clinical trials to continue.

“the continuation of clinical trials is critical to our understanding of the efficacy and length of immunity the vaccines offer,” Doggett wrote.

In the letter, Doggett said while the initial results received from Pfizer and Moderna are showing positive results, it’s not definitive given the limited data.

[…]

“Clinical trials have suffered from a lack of diverse participant enrollment and evaluation of subpopulations,” Doggett said. “Including individuals with comorbidities, children, pregnant and breastfeeding patients, long-term care residents and individuals with diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds.”

Diana Zuckerman, President of the National Center for Health Research, a non-partisan think tank in Washington D.C., agrees that the clinical trials should continue. She said healthcare workers who volunteered for the clinical trials should have immediate access to the vaccine if they want it.

“Like most public health experts, I’ve been very concerned that Pfizer and Moderna told the FDA that they want to stop their clinical trials of the COVID vaccine and instead immediately inoculate everyone in their placebo groups,” Zuckerman said. “While I understand the desire to reward the clinical trial volunteers for their service, it would be a huge loss of information from a public health point of view. Losing the placebo group means we’d have no way to scientifically determine which of the vaccines – if any — have 95% efficacy rates that last more than 2 or 3 months. Or how long the vaccine works on people over 75.”

Zuckerman added the people who volunteer for the clinical trials shouldn’t be vaccinated before those in priority groups such as teachers, essential workers, etc.

“Since many of the study volunteers are young and healthy, it also seems unfair for them to “cut in line” for a vaccine while healthcare workers and others at high risk are still waiting their turn,” she said.

[…]

Read the full article here

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 

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.