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Are Rushed Approvals by the FDA Responsible for Recent Rash of Drug Problems?

Written by on Thursday, March 27th, 2008

According to an Associated Press report, Harvard researchers have been reviewing the recent rash of problems with approved drugs and have come to a "disturbing" conclusion: drugs that were approved by the FDA in a rushed timetable have had more problems than drugs that were approved on a more leisurely timetable.  The results of this research have just been published in Thursday’s New England Journal of Medicine and provide support for the researchers’ conclusion.

The Associated Press explains as follows:

Deadlines were first imposed on FDA by a 1992 law that allowed drug makers to pay millions of dollars in fees directly to the cash-strapped agency so it could hire more reviewers and clear a backlog of pending drug applications. In return, FDA had to make a decision — either approve or reject — on 90 percent of all drug candidates within 12 months of their application, or lose money. The deadline was 6 months for drugs so novel or potentially lifesaving to be classified high-priority.  Congress tightened the deadline for most drugs to 10 months in 1997.

Amid concern about risky drugs, Harvard professor Daniel Carpenter took a closer look at the impact. First, he found approval is 3.4 times as likely in the two months leading up to the user-fee deadline as at any other time.  Drugs approved in that just-before-deadline period had a four-to five-fold higher rate of later being withdrawn or requiring serious safety warnings, compared with drugs approved faster — presumably slam-dunks — or those that miss the deadline, Carpenter concluded.

While the FDA is denying that an accelerated review timetable is responsible for the recent wave of problems with approved drugs, the New England Journal of Medicine report certainly suggests that the contrary may in fact be true. 

In light of this evidence, what should be done to protect the public? 

Two possibilities quickly come to mind: first, there is the option of bulking up the FDA staff to more effectively deal with accelerated review timetables, and second, there is the option of lobbying Congress to loosen the tight deadlines, so that the FDA has more time to do a more thorough review of new drugs.  Given the current budget deficit, the second option is likely more realistic.

Perhaps patients who are pursuing class action suits against Merck and other companies who have sold these problem drugs should redirect their efforts towards lobbying for new legislation in Congress to relax the current FDA approval deadlines.  Taking this action–rather than pursuing class actions suits–may very well be the step most likely to produce real change in order to best protect the public. 

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