Possible Drug Risks Buried in Delayed FDA ‘Watch Lists’

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has an early warning system to help catch safety problems with drugs after they reach the market. In the second quarter of 2015, a class of diabetes drugs called SGLT-2 inhibitors showed up on its radar screen.

The public didn’t know about this blip until about 7 months later. By law, it should have known months earlier. FDA critics say the agency’s early warning system needs fixing.

The regulatory radar is built on the FDA Adverse Event Reporting System (FAERS), which receives reports of problems from physicians, nurses, pharmacists, patients and their family members, and attorneys as well as drug manufacturers who pass on complaints they get from the public. […]

To one public health expert, publication delays for the FAERS watch lists illustrate how the FDA caters more to drug manufacturers than patients.

“The FDA has many requirements, and Congress keeps passing legislation that adds more mandates without adding funds for staff,” said Diana Zuckerman, PhD, president of the National Center for Health Research, a think tank focused on children and adults. “In the last year, it has become more obvious that the requirements that FDA has as its first priority are the ones that benefit industry — faster approvals.”

The FDA is beholden to pharmaceutical companies, said Dr Zuckerman, because they pay user fees that partially fund the agency. These same companies lobby a Republican Congress for a quicker, less onerous review process, and Congress in turn pressures the FDA to speed things up.

The agency felt a different kind of pressure when GAO [Government Accountability Office, the federal watchdog agency] issued its report on January 14, and Congresswoman DeLauro immediately called the FDA’s data problems “a severe safety risk for American consumers.” Dr Zuckerman said it was no coincidence that roughly 3 weeks later, the FDA posted its FAERS watch lists for the first three quarters of 2015, followed by the fourth-quarter report on March 22.

The watch lists play an important role in patient care, she said.

“Doctors who know there is a possible adverse risk for a drug might be likely to report it themselves if they see it in their patients,” she said. “And they’d be more likely to consider alternatives.”

Likewise, said Dr Zuckerman, some patients may balk at taking a drug appearing on a watch list.

“It’s not that these safety signals mean ‘Never use this drug,’ ” she said. “But they’re warning signals. That’s the whole point.” […]

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