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November 18, 2004: FDA Scientist Slams Agency on Safety; Says Agency Division Treats Drug Companies as Clients

David Graham, associate science director for the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety, appears before the Senate Committee on Finance to testify on the agency’s ability to protect the American public from harmful drugs. Graham, a twenty-year veteran of the agency, tells the committee that “the FDA, as currently configured, is incapable of protecting America against another Vioxx. We are virtually defenseless.” Graham was an early critic of Vioxx, a painkiller that was recalled in September (see September 30, 2004) because of its link to heart problems. Graham recounts how in August (see Mid-August 2004), the FDA tried to suppress a study he led which found that “nearly 28,000 excess cases of heart attack or sudden cardiac death were caused by Vioxx.” He says the study’s findings were “extremely conservative” and that “a more realistic and likely… estimate ranges from 88,000 to 139,000 Americans” of which “30-40 percent [or 26,400-55,600] probably died.” He notes that this figure is the “rough equivalent of 500 to 900 aircraft dropping from the sky… [or] 2-4 aircraft every week, week in and week out, for the past 5 years.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file] The remainder of Graham’s testimony focuses on problems within the FDA’s Office of Drug Safety (ODS). He makes the following points:
bullet The Office of New Drugs (ONS), which approves all new drugs, is the same division that is responsible for taking regulatory action against those drugs after they have been released on the market. This is an inherent conflict of interest, he notes, because when a problem arises, recognizing it would require the ONS to acknowledge that it had made a mistake. Instead, the office’s “immediate reaction [to a problem] is almost always one of denial, rejection, and heat.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The Office of Drug Safety (ODS) is subordinate to the Office of New Drugs, and consequently the management of the former sees its mission as pleasing the latter. [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The culture of the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER) “views the pharmaceutical industry it is supposed to regulate as its client, over-values the benefits of the drugs it approves and seriously under-values, disregards, and disrespects drug safety.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]
bullet The Office of New Drugs refuses to take regulatory action on any drug unless it can be shown with 95 percent or greater certainty that it is unsafe. However “to demonstrate a safety problem with 95 percent certainty, extremely large studies are often needed… [and] those large studies cannot be done.” Graham suggests the 95 percent rule makes as much sense as a person with a 100-chamber pistol loaded with 90 bullets saying that the gun is safe. “Because there is only a 90 percent chance that a bullet will fire when I pull the trigger, CDER would conclude that the gun is not loaded and that the drug is safe.” [US Congress, 11/18/2004 pdf file]

Entity Tags: David Graham

Timeline Tags: US Health Care

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