QUESTION: Which problem is the greatest: the FDA’s approving unsafe drugs, or the FDA’s delaying the approval of life-saving ones?
MY SHORT ANSWER: In 1992, Congress passed the Prescription Drug User Fee Act (PDUFA), allowing drug companies to voluntarily pay about $100,000 to get a speedier review. The money went to hire new reviewers.
The fee has grown steadily; it’s now over one million dollars per drug. The part of the FDA that reviews drug applications now receives about 50% of its funding from drug companies. FDA employees (e.g., Dr. David Graham, the whistleblower on Vioxx) have reported being told by supervisors that the drug companies — not the American public — are the FDA’s clients. This should be expected, as he who pays the bills makes the rules.
Does this mean that the FDA now approves unsafe drugs? It depends on how you look at it. Withdrawal rates (the percent of approved drugs removed from the market) from 1962-1992 and 1993-2013 are virtually identical at about 3%. As time goes on, however, more drugs approved during 1993-2013 are likely to be withdrawn. The differences may be small, though, as most withdrawals occur quickly. On the other hand, Vioxx, approved post-PDUFA, was by far the biggest drug disaster in history.
Does the FDA still delay approval of life-saving drugs? Yes! It does so by demanding that companies perform studies taking an average of 13-plus years. Prior to 1962, the average time was about 4 years. I suspect that these delays are still more costly, in terms of lives lost, than approvals of unsafe drugs.
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