Sydney Lupkin, Kaiser Health News and Daily Beast: November 3, 2019
After unanimously voting to recommend a miraculous hepatitis C drug for approval in 2013, a panel of experts advising the Food and Drug Administration gushed about what they’d accomplished. What the panelists didn’t know was that the FDA’s drug quality inspectors had recommended against approval.
“I voted ‘yes’ because, quite simply, this is a game changer,” National Institutes of Health hepatologist Dr. Marc Ghany said of Sovaldi, Gilead Science’s new pill designed to cure most cases of hepatitis C within 12 weeks.
Dr. Lawrence Friedman, a professor at Harvard Medical School, called it his “favorite vote” as an FDA reviewer, according to the transcript.
What the panelists didn’t know was that the FDA’s drug quality inspectors had recommended against approval.
They issued a scathing 15-item disciplinary report after finding multiple violations at Gilead’s main U.S. drug testing laboratory, down the road from its headquarters in Foster City, Calif. Their findings criticized aspects of the quality control process from start to finish: Samples were improperly stored and catalogued; failures were not adequately reviewed; and results were vulnerable to tampering that could hide problems.
Gilead Foster City doesn’t manufacture drugs. Its job is to test samples from drug batches to ensure the pills don’t crumble or contain mold, glass or bacteria, or have too little of an active antiviral ingredient.
Recent news reports have focused public attention on poor quality control and contamination in the manufacturing of cheap generic drugs, particularly those made overseas. But even some of the newest, most expensive brand-name medicines have been plagued by quality and safety concerns during production, a Kaiser Health News analysis shows.
More disturbing, even when FDA inspectors flagged the potential danger and raised red flags internally, those problems were resolved with the agency in secret ― without a follow-up inspection ― and the drugs were approved for sale.
Erin Fox, who purchases medicines for University of Utah Health hospitals, said she was shocked to hear from KHN about manufacturing problems uncovered by authorities at the facilities that make brand-name products. “Either you’re following the rules or you’re not following the rules,” Fox said. “Maybe it’s just as bad for branded drugs.”
The pressure to get innovative drugs like Sovaldi into use is considerable, both because they offer new treatments for desperate patients and because the medicines are highly profitable.
Against that backdrop, the FDA has repeatedly found a way to approve brand-name drugs despite safety concerns at manufacturing facilities that had prompted inspectors to push to reject those drugs’ approval, an ongoing KHN investigation shows. This happened in 2018 with drugs for cancer, migraines, HIV and a rare disease, and 10 other times in recent years, federal records show. In such cases, how these issues were discussed, negotiated and ultimately resolved is not public record.
For example, inspectors found that facilities making immunotherapies and migraine treatments didn’t follow up when drug products showed evidence of bacteria, glass or other contaminants. At a Chinese plant making the new HIV drug Trogarzo, employees dismissed “black residue” found to be “non-dissolvable metal oxides,” assuming it “did not pose a significant risk,” federal records show.
Not Just Generics
Recent media reports, and the ongoing recall of the widely used blood pressure medicine valsartan, have led consumers ― and members of Congress ― to question whether generics are manufactured safely. Valsartan pills made in China and India were found to contain cancer-causing impurities.
Branded-drug quality, in large part, has been spared from congressional scrutiny. But many factories ― overseas and in the U.S. ― make branded and generic drugs.
In January 2018, FDA inspectors hit a Korean manufacturing plant that makes Ajovy, a migraine drug, with a warning letter. With the problems still unresolved in April, an agency reviewer recommended withholding approval. When they returned in July, inspectors wanted to give the plant the worst possible classification: “Official Actions Indicated.” Among other problems, inspectors found that glass vials sometimes broke during the manufacturing process and that the facility lacked protocols to prevent the particles from getting into drug products. The FDA’s Office of Manufacturing Quality eventually downgraded the inspection to just “Voluntary Actions Indicated.”
The drug was approved in September 2018 and priced at $690 a month. FDA records indicate no further disciplinary action was taken. Teva, the maker of Ajovy, did not respond to requests for comment.
Similarly, when FDA inspectors visited a contract manufacturing facility in Indiana used to make Revcovi, which treats an autoimmune disease, they noted that a redacted drug lot had failed a sterility test because the vials tested positive for a bacterium called Delftia acidovorans, which can be detrimental even in people with healthy immune systems, studies show. But the drug-filling machine stayed in use after the contaminant was discovered, the FDA determined. Inspectors recommended withholding approval.
The drug was approved in October 2018 even after another inspection turned up problems, with a list price of $95,000 to $189,000 per month for an average patient, according to health care data firm Connecture.
Revcovi’s manufacturer, Leadiant Biosciences, said through an outside public relations firm that its contract manufacturer’s written responses to the FDA observations were considered “adequate” by two FDA offices, adding, “We do not have any more information to share with you at this time as pharmaceutical manufacturing processes are confidential.”
Problems with drugs can take years to discover ― and then only after patients are injured. So, many health researchers say, more caution is warranted.
“They’re doing so few of these [FDA] inspections pre-market,” said Diana Zuckerman, president of the nonprofit National Center for Health Research. “The least they can do is listen to the ones they’re doing.”
Read the original article here.