The House passed the final user fee reauthorization legislation last week and (as of this evening) the Senate has also passed the bill. It will now go to the President for signature. FDA Matters says: well done, Congress! Despite my fear of delays and bickering, you completed this process on time and with broad bipartisan support.
However, critics are already emerging, "before the ink is dry.” The advocacy group, Public Citizen, is complaining that drugs and devices will be less safe as a result of the legislation. At the same time, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former FDA official, has published an essay arguing the legislation doesn’t go far enough to expedite review of drugs for serious medical conditions.
The Public Citizen Health Research Group’s critique is to be expected. They were founded 40 years ago and have consistently been critical of the agency’s handling of drug and medical device approvals. Their continued opposition rests on three primary points:
- User fees created by PDFUA have created a conflict of interest because the agency is funded in part by the industry it is supposed to be regulating.
- This has led to poor quality reviews of drugs and thus the release of dangerous products. Since PDUFA, more drugs have been approved and then banned, causing needless deaths/injuries.
- Working conditions at the FDA have plummeted since PDUFA, resulting in high staff turnover and sweatshop-like conditions.
I, too, wish that FDA were 100% taxpayer funded, but user fees are reality, a compromise that makes it possible for FDA to have the funds to operate. There is no evidence of bias generated by the fees, plus Americans would be far worse off if a quarter of FDA’s budget (user fees) were to suddenly disappear.
With regard to the quality of drug reviews, I see no evidence they’ve declined and the methodology of the PDUFA/drug approval study is suspect. Working conditions and staff turnover are definitely a matter of “compared to what?” I don’t think FDA does badly when you look at it that way.
Far more of a surprise is the essay by Dr. Scott Gottlieb, former deputy commissioner for medical and scientific affairs at FDA. Using primarily examples of orphan drugs, he argues that FDA is over-focused on long-term safety and on reining in physician prescribing practices. As a result, the agency is stifling medical innovation and disregarding the needs of patients with serious medical conditions. I don’t agree with him on a number of points, but you can hit the link and judge for yourself.
His argument might be more compelling if he referenced large-market products, such as pain killers and obesity drugs. However, by using orphan drug examples, Dr. Gottlieb winds up attacking the new user fee reauthorization legislation as insufficient to expedite review of drugs that target serious medical conditions.
FDA Matters has already praised changes affecting orphan drugs and accelerated approval. My view is shared by much of FDA and the FDA stakeholder communities; for example: FDA and other leaders, BIO, the National Health Council and the National Organization for Rare Disorders.
So, why attack PDUFA’s bold new efforts on behalf of orphan drugs and patients with serious medical conditions?
To Dr. Gottlieb, these “legislative fixes” are inadequate because “the agency’s staff will still have wide discretion in determining when to employ these [new] tools.” If overcautious, reluctant reviewers are still in charge, then even Congressional changes in the FDA law will not improve the review process to benefit patients with serious medical conditions.
His proposed solution is to remove the approval of drugs from the review divisions and give that authority to a panel of senior scientists with the “experience and stature to exercise the policy judgment required to make careful decisions about how to weigh risk and benefits…” An even better solution, in his mind, would be to follow the European Medicine Agency’s model in which staff does analysis and evaluation, but the final approval decisions are made by politically-appointed individuals.
I think both of these approaches would severely weaken—if not outright undermine—the existing FDA approval process. This would be particularly unfortunate now, when the new legislation empowers agency leadership to lower the barriers, so that review staff can be more flexible and apply new approaches to evaluating therapies for serious medical conditions.
Conclusions. Before more drastic actions are considered, let’s give the new user fee reauthorization legislation time to work. The ink isn’t even dry!
Many readers were out of town this past Friday and may have missed:
Biosimilars Update: Keys for the Next Year and Beyond June 22nd, 2012
The biosimilars market in the U.S. will not grow large overnight. By a decade from now, sales of biosimilars will be creating new winners and losers in the overall biopharmaceutical marketplace. In light of this, I was recently asked: what should a developer or investor be looking to achieve over the next year in the area of biosimilars? What should they be looking to achieve in the years after that? Read the rest of this entry