Eleanor Laise, Marketwatch: July 13, 2021
Amid a firestorm over its approval of a new Alzheimer’s treatment, the Food and Drug Administration is holding closed-door meetings with companies it regulates — talks that critics say allow drug and device makers to exert outsize influence over the agency’s operations, threatening to erode public trust in the agency at a critical moment.
The talks focus on “user fees” that pharmaceutical and medical-device companies pay to the FDA annually and when applying for approval of new products. The FDA in recent years has become increasingly reliant on such payments, which funded nearly half of the agency’s total spending in fiscal year 2020. In exchange for the fees, the FDA agrees to certain deadlines for reviewing new-product applications, the type and frequency of meetings with companies submitting applications, and other commitments. The medical-product user-fee agreements are generally renegotiated every five years — a process that’s happening now, in advance of the current agreements’ expiration next year — and submitted to Congress for authorization.
Although the FDA is required by law to consult with patient and consumer advocacy groups on the discussions and make minutes of its industry meetings public, the meat of the talks often remains hidden, observers say. Since September of last year, the FDA has held more than 150 meetings with industry to discuss fee agreements for brand-name prescription drugs, generics, medical devices and biosimilars (products similar to branded biologic drugs), which together are expected to generate nearly $2 billion for the agency this fiscal year. Yet consumer advocates and other outside groups attempting to track the discussions say they remain in the dark about most of the details. FDA summaries of some recent meetings have been posted months after the fact or sum up a discussion in a single sentence. Medical-product safety experts say they’ve repeatedly asked for more access and details on the negotiations, to no avail.
“We simply can’t get a view into this process, and the lack of transparency is deliberate,” says Madris Kinard, a former public health analyst at the FDA and CEO of Device Events, which tracks medical-device adverse-event reports.
Details about the negotiations that have trickled out raise alarms among some medical-product safety experts, academic researchers and consumer advocates that the industry’s leverage in these talks ultimately puts patients at risk. User fees are speeding more products to market without a corresponding increase in resources to track the safety of those products, critics say. Yet in the current round of negotiations, FDA efforts to allocate more user fees toward monitoring the safety of medical products already on the market have met industry resistance.
The main idea behind the user-fee programs was to speed up FDA review of medical-product marketing applications — and they’ve delivered on that front. The median time to approval for standard new-drug applications was 10 months in fiscal 2018. In the years before user fees were first enacted, the median FDA application review time was nearly three years, according to a study by Kesselheim and colleagues at Harvard and Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
But user-fee deadlines can have serious side effects, some experts say. As the opioid crisis was exploding, “there was a question of ‘Why does the FDA keep approving the opioids?’ ” says a former FDA official. “One reason was that they had applications and had user-fee obligations to review the applications.” So long as an application met the standard requirements, “it would be approved,” he says. “That’s an example of the mindset” created by the deadlines.
Several studies have linked faster drug-approval timelines to safety issues. A 2014 study in Health Affairs found that drugs approved after user fees were enacted were more likely to get new black-box warnings or be withdrawn from the market than drugs approved in the pre-user-fee era. Other studies have found that, compared with drugs approved at other times, drugs given the green light shortly before their user-fee deadlines were more likely to have subsequent safety issues.
In the current round of medical-device user-fee negotiations, one of the FDA’s goals is to improve device safety, including through increased funding for surveillance of devices already on the market, the agency says. That proposal met stiff resistance from the industry, according to outside groups that have received FDA briefings on the talks. At an April 7 negotiation meeting, the industry expressed the view that fees “should be solely for the premarket review process,” according to a summary posted by FDA. Medical-device trade group AdvaMed didn’t respond to requests for comment.
At the start of the prescription-drug user-fee negotiations, the FDA also emphasized its hope of improving the Sentinel Initiative, a system for assessing the safety of approved medical products. But a related proposal advanced by the FDA during the negotiations was shot down by the industry, a December meeting summary notes.
“There’s not a lot of friction between the industry and the agency” in prescription-drug user-fee negotiations, says a former FDA official. “The industry knows it’s getting good value.”
A sign of the amicable relations: One FDA official leading the current round of prescription-drug user-fee negotiations left the agency in April of this year, according to her LinkedIn profile, to become vice president of science and regulatory affairs at BIO — one of the industry groups she’d just been negotiating with. The former FDA official, Khushboo Sharma, participated in a user-fee negotiation meeting with BIO and other industry representatives as recently as Feb. 12, according to meeting summaries posted by the agency. “That is obviously an outrageous situation and clearly undermines the integrity” of the process, says Diana Zuckerman, president of the National Center for Health Research, a nonprofit think tank.
Asked for comment, the FDA sent a link to its post-employment restrictions, which say in part that current employees who have begun seeking employment outside the federal government must immediately recuse from certain matters that affect “the discrete industry, economic sector, or other defined class of organizations in which the prospective employer operates.” BIO didn’t respond to a request for comment. Sharma says that she worked with FDA ethics officials “to ensure I was recusing myself from all appropriate activities. I started seeking post-employment opportunities after negotiations had concluded.”
When the agency’s position does conflict with an industry’s, the FDA “is not going to come out on top,” says Lisa McGiffert, a patient-safety advocate at the nonprofit Patient Safety Action Network. Given the industry’s track record of snagging many items on its wish list, some observers are concerned that the current round of negotiations could chip away at FDA standards for approving new drugs. One issue: the use of “real-world data,” which can come from insurance claims, medical records, disease registries and other sources beyond the bounds of clinical trials. In an August 2020 letter to the FDA about user-fee reauthorization, PhRMA said that real-world data and evidence “may, in some circumstances, be adequate on their own to satisfy the substantial evidence criteria for demonstrating effectiveness” of drugs.
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