Edited by Dan Elton
Note from the Editor: In a conversation on Clubhouse that I hosted, entitled “Is the FDA moving too slowly with vaccine approvals?”, Willy Chertman articulated a number of nuanced points about the FDA. He had recently finished reading Reputation and Power, an 856-page book on the history of the FDA. I asked Willy to organize his notes on the book so that the USTP membership could learn his key takeaways from the book and learn more about the history and role of the FDA. Willy graciously accepted my request. I have edited his notes somewhat for length and made some minor copyedits. A few key takeaways are bolded.
– Daniel C. Elton, Director of Scholarship, United States Transhumanist Party, April 2, 2021
Reputation and Power
Organizational Image and Pharmaceutical Regulation at the FDA
by Daniel P. Carpenter
856 pgs. Princeton University Press, 2010
Reputation and Power is a very deep dive into the history of the FDA and the reputational universe that it inhabits and creates. The gist of the book is that reputation management is the best lens to understand the FDA, not “public interest” versus “regulatory capture”. The political and regulatory power of the FDA is bound up inextricably with how Congress, the pharmaceutical industry, academic medicine, and consumer-protection groups view it. By virtue of the size of the market it regulates and its pre-market approval power, the FDA is likely the most powerful regulatory agency in the world.
Because of the length of the book and the variety of topics it covers, I’ve split this book summary into two parts. The first half covers the history of the FDA and the second half covers the themes and lessons I learned from the book. Though Carpenter covers up to about 2010, time constraints meant that this summary only covers up to 1992. Hopefully future posts will cover the remaining material.
The origin story of the FDA in popular political mythology begins with thalidomide, but Carpenter does an excellent job showing how the FDA started as an obscure branch of the USDA, originating with the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. In the early 1900’s the FDA had nothing but the ability to confiscate dangerous drugs or compounds from the market. Later, in a pattern that will repeat itself, forces within and without the FDA made good use of the dictum “Never let a crisis go to waste.”
The context is that the early 1900s were a stupendous time to be a patent medicine salesman– a synonym for charlatan. Apart from aspirin, it’s not clear that any patent medicine of that time ever turned out to be effective. Medicines to lull your baby to sleep relied on opium or alcohol, and sulfonamide antibiotics were not invented until the 1930s, and even then their manufacturing process was initially unreliable . Yet the patent medicine trade was booming. In an interesting historical irony, John D Rockefeller, through his foundation’s funding of the Flexner Report, which birthed medical education as we know it, ended the traveling medicine salesman/huckster-doctor profession – which his own father had been in.
The Pure Food and Drug Act of 1908 required accurate labeling of products and also gave the FDA the power to seize and destroy products that violated the law. Importantly, this did not give the FDA the power of pre-market approval, which is its most important power today. Though the FDA was prohibited from directly lobbying for more authority, many in the agency and their Progressive congressional allies believed the FDA was weak and underfunded relative to the growing pharmaceutical industry it was supposed to regulate. In 1935, New York Senator Copeland had tried to pass legislation that would strengthen the FDA, aided by women’s political organizations and the Consumers Research group, but his attempt had failed in the House.
There had been previous small-scale pharmaceutical disasters, but the Sulfonamide Elixir stood out for scale and the media attention that it garnered. The leading role that the FDA eventually took in handling the disaster, as well as the relationship with the media that it cultivated, also made this disaster special. This is the beginning of the sidelining of the American Medical Association (AMA), which had previously been one of the centers of organized medical power.
People became seriously ill from its consumption, and by late October 1937, at least seventy-three of these had died. The FDA, assisted by state and local health officials and the American Medical Association, commenced an effort to secure as much of the compound as possible before any more was consumed.
The media ran stories of heroic FDA officials working late into the night trying to confiscate a dangerous drug, and the story re-surfaced whenever another death was reported. The cherry on top of this story was a report released by the Secretary of Agriculture, the Campbell-Wallace Report:
‘A few simple and inexpensive tests,’ the sort that would be performed by the company before marketing and analyzed in a pre-market review process by the FDA, would quickly have evinced the elixir’s “toxic properties.” Translation: with a pre-market review process, none of this would have happened.
In February 1938, Copeland’s S.3073 was again considered in the Senate. Women’s groups and public-health leagues now lobbied intensively for its passage, and their rhetoric made clear the centrality of the Wallace report in the new deliberations.
Contrary to the theory of regulatory capture, large pharmaceutical firms, who might have expected to benefit from a regulatory moat, did not advocate for the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act. Instead, it was Progressive politicians pressured by consumer protection groups, women’s groups, and forces within the FDA that advocated for it.
The 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act gave birth to modern pharmaceutical regulation: The four enumerated powers—(1) pre-market review and notification, (2) prohibition (or withdrawal authority), (3) labeling regulation, and (4) compulsory disclosure of all drug contents (active and inactive)—have become assumed and core legal features of pharmaceutical markets
While the 1938 act did not contain an efficacy provision, Carpenter shows how this was effectively smuggled into drug regulation anyways, with officials saying:
It has been emphasized that there is no arbitrary standard of safety; it is a relative matter in which the toxicity of the drug must be weighed against the therapeutic benefits which its use will bring about.
In the 1940’s and 1950’s the FDA gradually raised the standards for drug approval, and its Division of Pharmacology drew many talented pharmacologists from academia. Throughout the FDA-cultivated “reputational ambiguity”.
The simultaneous ambiguity and fear-provoking stance of investigational regulation was, in part, FDA officials’ manner of expressing and maintaining the agency’s gatekeeping role, even as they did not fully comprehend…
Though a Randomized Controlled Trial was not yet an explicit requirement for drug approval, the FDA gradually raised the bar on the required toxicity, stability, and drug metabolism studies. As pharmacology refined its methodology, the FDA required more and more from drug companies, viewed amateur physician-directed trials with more suspicion, and by being the central gatekeeper of pharma, made the whole field more rigorous and scientific.
The FDA used a variety of carrots in addition to the “stick” of gatekeeper:
From the beginnings of the Eisenhower administration and probably earlier, FDA officials acted intentionally, strategically, and with foresight to establish numerous committees of liaison to the professions. Agency officials established not just medically specialized “advisory committees” of the sort that became institutionalized in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries, but also more temporary committees that helped the FDA recruit and retain allies and consultants.
The Administration cultivated relationships with academic luminaries in pharmacology, and many of their promising students became part of it. Dr. Frances Kelsey, a Professor of Pharmacology at South Dakota State University who had done important research on the teratogenic effects of drugs on animal fetuses, was an archetypical example. She had come highly recommended to the agency, and though she developed a reputation as being a more exacting drug reviewer than most, the agency as a whole had become more cautious over the decades.
Thalidomide, marketed as Contergan in Europe, was being widely used there as a sedative, and the company (Merrell) submitted a drug application to the FDA. Kelsey held up the application due to safety concerns, even in the face of vigorous company complaint, and was vindicated when it was later tied to an outbreak of birth defects in Europe.
This might have remained the stuff of obscure industry history if the antitrust subcommittee led by Senator Estes Kefauver had not leaked the details of the story to the reporter Morton Mintz. Kefauver, who had been leading high-profile hearings on the “drug industry” and had been trying to shorten their drug patent periods as well as incentivize generic drug prescription, gave Morton Mintz key data about the Thalidomide saga as well as Frances Kelsey’s role in it.
1962 Amendments and After…
The Drug Amendments of 1962 were opposed by the Pharmaceutical Manufacturers Association, but the FDA’s star was ascendant with the Thalidomide crisis having shown its worth.
At their core, the Amendments contained three provisions governing pharmaceutical regulation (table 4.1). They first required affirmative evidence of “effectiveness” and “safety,” evidence in the form of “adequate and well-controlled investigations,” before any “new drug” could enter into interstate commerce. Second, they required designation of a medicine as an Investigational New Drug during its period of experimentation (and submission of the IND to the agency), and empowered the Administration to nullify this status (and hence development of the drug) if research protections for patients were not being observed, if the clinical trial protocol was not sufficiently rigorous, if pregnant women were being exposed to teratogens, or if any evidence of research as commercialization emerged. Third, they required the Administration to lay out and enforce new procedures to protect the interests and rights of patients in medical research.
The impact of the law was significant: Before 1960, there are no references to phased trials in the American and European medical literature, and there is no reference to a “Phase 3” study in Western medical literature before 1964. In the early 1960s, reports of “Phase 1” and “Phase 2” experiments appear haltingly, then rapidly near the end of the decade (table 4.2). What is more, American researchers and doctors began to reflect systematically on the relationship between earlier phases and later phases.
In the 1960’s, as the FDA continued to gain in power, it met with some moderate resistance from organized medicine. These incidents illustrate the reputational politics that the FDA is sensitive to: when comments by Frances Kelsey at a medical conference were taken to indicate that patients always had to be informed that they might receive a placebo, a leading clinical trialist at Harvard, Henry Beecher, wrote to the FDA Commissioner. In another incident, the FDA’s General Counsel William Goodrich implied that medical journals might be liable for misleading advertisements, which prompted a prominent Cornell pharmacologist Walter Modell, who had previously been an ally of the FDA, to publicly rebuke them.
In both cases, to varying degrees, those statements were publicly walked back by the FDA.
Sometimes public dissent against the FDA could damage one’s career, even for the most credentialed academic, as Louis Lasagna’s advocacy for combination antibiotics demonstrated:
Lasagna’s advocacy for Panalba was risky and vocal, and it marked the beginning of a steady decline in his status among medical academicians. Lasagna’s name was golden in the 1950s, when he had authored pathbreaking papers on the placebo response and clinical trial design, when he had founded the nation’s first clinical pharmacology department at Johns Hopkins, and when he had testified in support of efficacy standards at the Kefauver hearings in 1960.
…The diverging paths of Louis Goodman and Louis Lasagna marked the splintering audiences of the Food and Drug Administration as well as the agency’s enduring scientific legitimacy. In the status-conscious world of academic medicine, Louis Lasagna never fully recovered from the Panalba battle.
An important feature of FDA history in the 60’s and 70’s was the congressional hearing. Because of changes in how congressional committee chairs were chosen, congressional hearings became more important in this period. The obligation of FDA officials to appear before Congress when requested and to testify was an important check on its power and a venue where its public reputation was maintained.
Criticism from an industry-friendly senator could strengthen the FDA’s image as pharma policeman while an FDA whistleblower like John Nestor testifying to its regulatory inadequacy could force less accommodation with the drug industry by effectively shaming the FDA into more stringency.
Congressional hearings seemed, at least in the 1970s, to be the strongest check on FDA behavior. When Senator Gaylord Nelson read The Doctor’s Case Against the Pill, and started hearings into the FDA’s approval of it, and its widespread use, the end result was, after much criticism from prestigious physicians, scientists, and consumer safety advocates, the creation of the patient-package-insert. (see chapter 9)
An illustration of how the FDA sought to collaborate with other scientific institutions can be seen in how it dealt with medications that had been approved before 1962 and the formal recognition of an efficacy standard. Thousands of drugs had been approved in the 1940s and 1950s on the basis of evidence that were wholly inadequate by 1962 FDA standards. These drugs had now been incorporated into clinical practice for many years, and so any FDA action on them would be seen as doubly intrusive by physicians. To strengthen their position and reduce their workload, the FDA collaborated with the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate these old drugs.
The 1970s probably marks the peak of the FDA’s power, as a series of court decisions endowed the Administration with the authority to issue rules with “the force of law” and creating “a presumption in favor of agencies that claimed legislative rulemaking authority”. When the FDA does not want to create formal rules, which require an elaborate process, it also uses “nonbinding” guidance documents which are, in reality, quite binding:
Because the Administration has the ultimate say over whether and when a new drug will be marketed, its mere suggestions and intimations induce compliance even where they are not backed by legal authority. The agency’s use of Federal Register policy statements and “guidance documents” (nonbinding statements of policy that are not customarily published in the Federal Register but are published under the auspices of the FDA itself) permits its officials to avoid the more costly and elaborate process of formal rulemaking, while still gaining acquiescence with its regulatory wishes.
With its arsenal of new authorities and the powers that flowed from them, the Administration began in the 1960s and 1970s to exercise vast sway over the medical marketplace. Familiar over-the-counter remedies and doctor-prescribed pills vanished. The place of the general practitioner in drug development waned to the point of disappearance, as companies could no longer rely upon doctors’ casual observations or observations of patient histories to buttress claims of safety and effectiveness.
Though there were occasional media critiques of the FDA in the late 1960s, the 1970s and 1980s were really the beginning of a sustained critique of the FDA from the right. This came from many quarters: business-friendly publications like the Wall Street Journal, prominent economists like Sam Peltzman who were quantitatively assessing regulatory impact on innovation in various industries, and industry organizations. In 1974, the American Enterprise Institute played a key role by launching the AEI Center for Health Policy Research, which brought together pharmacologists, industry officials, and economists. The “drug lag”, coined in 1972, was the time between a drug being introduced in Europe vs the US, and along with the cost-benefit analysis of regulation, was a key critique of the administration. A sign of the success of these critiques was that while top FDA officials publicly rejected the premise of the drug lag, inside the administration, increased attention was paid to the drugs that had already been approved in peer countries.
Even as libertarian-aligned think tanks, academics, and newspapers criticized the FDA for being too cautious, the opposite critique was sustained by consumer-protection groups throughout this period.
No voice more cogently or passionately articulated the case for rigorous drug safety standards than that of physician-activist Sidney Wolfe, and no arrangement better amplified the concerns of Wolfe and his allies than the committee systems of the U.S. House and Senate. Wolfe helped to found the Health Research Group, a subsidiary of Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen, in 1971.
Wolfe had no formal role in the Administration, but by careful use of administrative procedures like FOIA requests and citizen petitions, combined with journalist connections, he could push the FDA into action when it was reluctant. The whole section on him is worth excerpting:
Wolfe’s principal weapon was his threat to the Administration’s consumer protection image. The credibility of this threat depended on a set of strategies by which Wolfe and his organization could embarrass the agency, extract data from it, influence the FDA’s decision agenda, or (less commonly) induce courts to force the agency to take a given action.
First, he was adept at using administrative procedures refined in the 1970s, including Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests and citizens’ petitions, to pry important drug safety and procedural information out of the agency, or to place contentious and uncomfortable items on the Administration’s agenda. Second, Wolfe exploited the public comment period of the FDA’s advisory committee meetings on drugs, an opportunity that offered a public venue albeit with brief appearances. Third, Wolfe appeared regularly at congressional committee hearings as an invited guest, and his ties to committee chairs and their staff gave him indirect access to committee powers (replete with tools for discovery). In the 1970s and 1980s, Wolfe worked partially in tandem with subcommittee chairmen ranging from Lawrence Fountain, Henry Waxman, and Ted Weiss in the House to Senators Edward Kennedy and Abraham Ribicoff.
Fourth, Wolfe maintained ties to journalists over a period of several decades (Morton Mintz, Christine Russell, Philip Hilts, and others). He used these journalists to publicize actions (such as the taking of surveys of FDA medical officers) that would otherwise not have received much public attention. Finally, Wolfe and his organization shrewdly used lawsuits and the threat of legal action to induce rulemaking and jar the agency into action. The strategies of administrative maneuvering, advisory committee testimony, appearances at congressional hearings, and media access became much more pivotal to Wolfe’s leverage over the FDA after 1979, when a federal judge limited the right of Nader’s group to sue agencies on behalf of the general public.
A clear demonstration of the conservative sentiment of the times was the backlash against the FDA when it attempted to regulate supplements more stringently:
In August 1973, the Administration published fourteen final regulations and five proposed rules that governed the labeling of foods and food supplements.
Led by Wisconsin Senator William Proxmire, Congress in 1976 passed an amendment to the 1938 Act which extended the “generally recognized as safe” (GRAS) exemption for vitamins and minerals to dietary supplements. The “Proxmire Amendment” prevents the Administration from restricting the potency of a vitamin or mineral supplement based on either of two criteria: (1) food misbranding charges or (2) on the premise that the supplement would qualify as a drug if it surpassed the agency’s desired level of potency. For almost two decades, FDA officials largely backed off from rule-making on supplements.
In the late 1990s, the FDA again attempted to regulate supplements and faced a similar legislative rebuke.
Overall, though the FDA faced some setbacks when it attempted to regulate supplements, it survived the conservative turn in the 1980s with its power and reputation mostly intact, an impressive achievement for such a powerful regulatory agency. In some ways, the criticism from the libertarian perspective may have strengthened the FDA’s reputational position:
[I]t would be wrong to conclude that the persistence of criticism and scrutiny has undermined the agency’s reputation and power. It is certainly plausible that criticism has depleted morale, and on occasion publicity and hearings have weakened its leadership.
For those who have paid attention to the increasing polarization of US politics over the last 20 years, this may sound familiar – criticism from your enemies can be a reliable signal to your allies that you’re on their side. In a similar way, pharma and libertarian criticism of the FDA may strengthen its reputational position in the views of consumer-protection groups and allied groups.
AIDS and Cancer
The “drug lag” criticism was a long-lasting and effective critique of the FDA, but Carpenter seems to argue that the most significant reforms of the FDA were really brought about by inter-agency squabbles over cancer drugs and the moral outcry of the HIV epidemic. The interactions of AIDS activists and the FDA are probably more well-known than the turf battle between the National Cancer Institute (NCI) and the FDA, but it appears that the latter may have been more influential.
NCI-supported investigators were developing combination chemotherapies that were very promising, modeled after the lucky discovery of platinum’s anticancer potential by physicist Barnett Rosenberg. From 1975 to 1977 Robert S. K. Young, an FDA medical reviewer, repeatedly took issue with the study protocols of combination chemotherapy trials and halted several trials. A prominent MD Anderson oncologist, Emil Freireich, retaliated by reading out a list of complaints about FDA interference into NCI-funded trials at an important meeting of President Ford’s Cancer panel. Benno Schmidt, the chairman of the panel and a prominent official in Ford’s Administration, agreed with him. Young’s supervisor William Gyarfas stuck by his subordinate.
Young overreached when in a 1977 Advisory Committee he attempted to more aggressively regulate the clinical trials of combination chemotherapy and effectively eliminate dosage variation in chemotherapy without preclinical studies. The Committee voted against his proposal, and this caught the attention of Richard Crout, then-head of the Bureau of Drugs. Crout met with the head of NCI and basically admitted his subordinate had overreached, and they worked on a series of protocols to relax FDA restrictions for terminally ill patients.
While this might have been the end of the bureaucratic conflict, the NCI had decided to escalate:
House Health Subcommittee chairman Paul Grant Rogers (D-FL) released a December 3, 1976 letter from the American Cancer Society calling for full “NCI control over the testing of new anticancer drugs, instead of FDA control” for nonprofit research sponsors. This transfer of power would be accomplished, as ACS representative Nathaniel Polster hoped, by amendments to the National Cancer Act. While NCI officials were largely silent about the ACS proposal, M. D. Anderson’s Freireich was not. He openly called for deep “structural changes” so that the “FDA can never again shut [down cancer research].”
This would be a huge escalation. If the NCI succeeded in wresting control over regulation of a specific disease, it would set a precedent for continued piecemeal diminishment of FDA authority:
And to Administration officials concerned about the maintenance of their authority over clinical trials, the ACS-NCI proposal raised the specter of debilitation by precedent. Once an exception for one category of illness was carved out of the FDA’s power over clinical research, it was feared, demands from representatives of other diseases would soon follow. As if to confirm the FDA’s premonitions, Solomon Garb of the Citizens’ Committee for the Conquest of Cancer seized upon the NCI-FDA dispute and called for ending FDA power over any clinical trial in which patients have “poor prognoses.” Garb’s remarks introduced a different and more formidable voice to the growing chorus of criticism, in part because the Citizens’ Committee was an amalgam of union, scientific, corporate, scientific, and civic leaders…
This proposal didn’t come from a fringe libertarian or anti-government organization but from respected sources. The NCI and the FDA eventually came to agreement:
DeVita and Crout settled on a new procedure whereby “stop orders” for NCI-sponsored trials for terminally ill patients could be issued only by the Bureau of Drugs chief (Crout himself at the time) or the deputy chief (Marion Finkel, at the time). The two groups later agreed to use the nation’s forty comprehensive cancer centers to mediate the surveillance of research protocols. The new arrangement embedded meaningful victories for both sides. For the Institute, the new procedures effectively bypassed Robert Young and, more notably, William Gyarfas, Director of the Oncology Drugs Division. NCI officials and their grantees would now deal more directly with Crout and Finkel, who were more trusted within oncology networks. And the Institute’s détente with the FDA helped it to buttress claims that it was being “dominated”…
The Administration would retain full control over cancer trials. The NCI would now officially acknowledge and defer to the IND regulations, and in so doing it would develop a “Master Plan” of drug development…
By January 1979, the dispute had issued in a document with odd legal status but firm organizational commitments (figure 6.1). An informal procedure for resolving FDA-NCI disputes appears to have been worked out in April 1979. The procedure entailed four steps: (1) first devolving disputes to the lowest managerial level deemed suitable for negotiation—the Associate Director of the Bureau of Drugs (at that time, Finkel) and the Director of the NCI’s Cancer Treatment Division (DeVita), then (2) to negotiations between the Bureau of Drugs head (Crout) and the NCI Director, then (3) to negotiations between the FDA Commissioner and NIH head, and (4) finally, determination by FDA Commissioner himself if none of these previous options produced a resolution. The memorandum bound neither agency legally. It was rather an informal institution founded in a political equilibrium, a mutual wish to avoid the spectacle of open, public conflict among two agencies whose reputations generally benefited from being out of the public eye.
While the NCI and FDA struggle would lead to a durable compromise between the two agencies, the Laetrile saga would come closest to threatening FDA power, and yet ultimately affirm it. From a libertarian perspective it is darkly amusing that the drug that came closest to breaking the FDA’s stranglehold was the charismatic but ultimately useless drug Laetrile.
Laetrile had been developed by an Ernst Krebs (of no relation to the Krebs cycle) who had failed out of medical school and whose father, incidentally, was also a conman physician. At various times its supporters described it as vitamin B17, as a relative of cyanide, and as amygdalin. NCI scientist Dean Burk had developed a molecular model that was supposed to demonstrate Laetrile’s anti-tumor activity and a San Francisco foundation applied to the FDA for an IND for experimentation.
Their IND was ultimately rejected by the FDA, which cited problems with the sponsors and monitors of the trial and its design. The key difference between the FDA’s rejection of Laetrile and its previous policing of quack medicines was the FDA exerting its power on the IND stage. This was a rhetorically powerful difference.
What most bothered many Laetrile supporters and their distant sympathizers was not the absence of Laetrile from the drug marketplace, but the absence of a permit for testing. Appropriating the juridical metaphor of a “fair trial,” they linked a populist ethic of self-medication to issues of justice and to more progressive norms of academic and intellectual freedom, the liberty of research and exploration of ideas. … By pressing the case for a total ban, by publicizing its seizures, and by assisting with state and federal prosecutions of Laetrile distributors, the Administration had resurrected a face that had been nearly invisible since the 1950s: the FDA as police.
Newspapers ran headlines criticizing the FDA for overreach. Organizations for therapeutic freedom sprung up across the country and a bill sponsored by Representative Steve Symms that would repeal the efficacy provisions of the 1962 amendments attracted over 100 sponsors. Several states passed laws legalizing Laetrile. The anti-FDA sentiment was nearly mainstream: Time Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, and the New York Times all ran editorials with some support for Laetrile proponents, or at least criticized the FDA’s overreach.
From the FDA’s perspective, several court cases were going in an unwelcome direction. Lower courts had issued an injunction against seizure of Laetrile, had decided that the FDA had the duty of showing lack of safety, not the sponsor affirmative proof of safety, and that the FDA had not exercised due process in its Laetrile ban. Since the regulatory power of the FDA was inextricably bound up with its flexible ability to issue rules and the affirmative requirement of drug sponsors to show safety and efficacy, these rulings were a threat to the FDA. In recognition of this enormous pressure, the FDA Commissioner did two contradictory things: one, he affirmed his agency’s judgement that Laetrile was ineffective and dangerous; two, he granted an IND to the NCI for Laetrile. In a PR coup for the Laetrile camp, they also testified before Congress to the Health and Scientific Research Subcommittee. The ability of the agency to offer different faces to different audiences is a recurring theme of Carpenter’s, who views it as key to the FDA’s long-term success.
In June 1979, in Rutherford vs United States, The Supreme Court reversed the Tenth Circuit, which had previously ruled that the FDA could not regulate drugs given to terminally ill patients. It was a powerful affirmation of the FDA’s regulatory authority. Though at this point the FDA could have likely dropped the Laetrile IND for any number of reasons, the FDA issued a conditional approval for Laetrile’s IND, which was set to be tested at rigorous NCI-affiliated institutions that the FDA trusted.
The Supreme Court decision, followed by the very public death of actor Steve McQueen, who had pursued a number of alternative medicine therapies including Laetrile after a mesothelioma diagnosis, led to the gradual decline of Laetrile’s political power. The FDA post-Laetrile had its legal power affirmed over every part of medicine: terminally ill patients, cancer patients, whether a given drug was even a legitimate experimental drug, etc.
Like the NCI and FDA power struggle, the AIDS crisis resulted in substantial concessions by the FDA. Unlike the former, the AIDS crisis played out much more publicly, and instead of bureaucratic warfare, the battle was a reputational one. The primary strategy of AIDS activists was to attack the FDA’s good name– instead of a public health agency and “protector of the American consumer” they sought to cast it as a villain who was killing AIDS patients through its slow and inflexible procedures. Until the 1990s AIDS was a slow death sentence, and in the early 1980s it was still poorly understood, with an official announcement by HHS Secretary Margaret Heckler that AIDS was caused by HIV occurring only in 1984. Retroviruses had only been discovered in 1970, and there were no targeted therapies for them until the HIV antiretrovirals.
An important advantage that AIDS activists had was that decades of organizing had left the gay community with many highly effective and experienced community activists. Many of them went on to form important groups: the most prominent of them were Gay Men’s Health Crisis, AIDS Foundation, Project Inform, and ACT-UP. Gay men were also highly concentrated in urban centers and in some places, like San Francisco, had achieved some degree of political power. Nancy Pelosi, a rising star in the Democratic Party, was sympathetic to many gay activist groups and a Congresswoman. All of these resources would eventually be mobilized against the FDA.
A key event was the story of HPA-23 and Rock Hudson. Rock Hudson, a movie star who had been diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, died of AIDS in 1985. Newsweek reported that before his death he had traveled to Paris to receive an experimental HIV treatment, HPA-23, which was being given there, though under poorly controlled conditions and with little good evidence. The FDA had banned even its experimental use in the US because of severe liver toxicity concerns; it then reversed course and allowed testing in 1985, likely due to the Newsweek story. Well-done trials in 1986 in the US later demonstrated severe toxicity and no efficacy, vindicating the FDA’s earlier caution.
The first effective treatment for HIV was azidothymidine (AZT), which was being developed by Wellcome, a reputable drug company that had substantial experience with the FDA. To the FDA’s credit, the AZT path to approval was remarkably quick: the company first started investigating AZT in June 1984 for possible HIV activity in-vitro; notified the FDA in April 1985, submitted an IND in June 1985, the FDA approved it in a week, and the first clinical trial (Phase 1) began in July 1985.
Phase 2 trials which had begun in February 1986 were halted early in September 1986 due to clear signs of treatment success, and AZT was officially submitted to the FDA for approval in December 1986. Eileen Cooper, a rising young star at the FDA, was in charge of reviewing it, and had been reviewing the AZT data for months before the official submission date. Even before the most militant AIDS activists had begun pressuring the FDA, she had been discussing with others on ways to speed and streamline the approval process.
She took two important steps. First, in September 1986 she had released AZT for compassionate use to 4000+ AIDS patients, which likely saved many lives. Second, she sought the support of the FDA’s Advisory Committee on Ineffective Drug Products in a January 1987 meeting, which would symbolically back up the FDA’s decision to approve AZT on the basis of a single prematurely ended clinical trial. This would achieve two contradictory goals: the rapid release of a likely effective drug to suffering patients; and satisfy the consumer-protection and public-health voices that generally urged caution.
Thus, even before much of the publicized anti-FDA activism, the FDA had demonstrated flexibility and speed in approving AZT. However Larry Kramer, a prominent playwright and activist in the gay community, viewed this as grossly inadequate, and penned a 1987 essay in the NYTimes attacking the FDA. Carpenter is skeptical of Kramer’s specific claims:
Kramer’s essay is shot through with inaccuracy and hyperbole. Of the therapies he mentions, only ddC (zalcitabine) emerged as a recognizably and broadly effective treatment for HIV/AIDS in the ensuing two decades—and its development had been accelerated by the Administration at the very time that AIDS activists were expressing strong doubts about it. Furthermore, many who perceived organizational problems at the agency—including journalists at the New York Times but also the George H. W. Bush administration—saw less a malady of bureaucracy and more a deficiency of resources. Like other AIDS activists, moreover, Kramer was equating the FDA with the Reagan administration when in fact much of Reagan’s and his administration’s ignorance of or indifference to AIDS was unrelated to FDA policy or regulations… Yet for all of its shortcomings and simplifications, and indeed because of them, Kramer’s essay was politically effective because it projected a simple, accessible, and forceful threat to the FDA’s reputation. Like much of the portraiture emerging from AIDS activists, it recast the Administration in terms and symbols diametrically opposed to those fashioned by Young, Cooper, and Tabor in the review and approval of AZT. In some ways, the FDA was being cast as a generalized but faceless bureaucracy, as an inefficient, an “intransigent,” “callous,” and inaccessible organization. In other ways, it was the Administration’s very gatekeeping power—over drugs themselves (the NDA process) and over clinical trials (IND approvals)—that was under attack. By serving as a “bottleneck,” a public health agency dedicated to consumer protection was lengthening the “roll-call of death.” Instead of raising genuine and substantive issues regarding clinical trial design with AIDS drugs, the Administration was in Kramer’s depiction imposing classic “red-tape” constraints upon medical research, nitpicking research protocols, shuffling words and sentences.
Beyond criticizing the FDA, local activists and physicians also directly subverted the traditional placebo-controlled trials:
Doctors would lie about their patients’ previous disease status to secure patient enrollment in a trial. Activist physicians and health-care workers would examine a pill to expose its placebo content. Once a placebo was identified, activists and patients would substitute the genuine treatment for the research subject, using supplies procured underground.
In California activist Martin Delaney ran an unofficial trial with “Compound Q”, distributing it to patients that had failed to respond to other drugs and bypassing the FDA entirely. Part of the project’s explicit aim was to push the FDA harder against its traditional approach to drug development.
Activists like Delaney and Kramer also personalized their criticism of the FDA by singling out Ellen Cooper, the medical reviewer for AZT (and the FDA’s unofficial point-person for HIV drugs), attacking her in the New York Times and in ACT-UP manuals. The peak of activist militancy was probably the October 1988 Rockville demonstration against the FDA. More than 1000 activists gathered in front of the FDA and displayed a banner that read, “Federal Death Administration”. Of note, these protests occurred after the AZT approval. Media coverage followed the protest, and the FDA responded by hosting a press release which effectively restated the new procedures that Ellen Cooper had developed for AZT. This announcement made newspaper headlines, though activists viewed it as a publicity stunt, not as a substantive change.
The most substantive change was probably the “Subpart E” regulation, which would allow for the possibility of a single expanded Phase 2 Trial sufficing to prove safety and efficacy for certain debilitating diseases. Again, this formalized the process that AZT had undergone, and this and other changes had actually been foreshadowed by the FDA’s behavior with cancer therapeutics. This is a recurring observation by Carpenter – phase shifts in FDA behavior are usually preceded by more subtle but similar behavior years or decades before. AZT had sped through the FDA approval process faster than any drug before – but it followed the template of cancer drugs before it. Continuity, not revolution, is the running theme of the FDA’s history.
ACT-UP was very strategic: some elements of conservative politics had long wished for a repeal of the 1962 Kefauver-Harris Amendments, but ACT-UP made sure to maintain “organizational and rhetorical distance” from those groups, which likely preserved their credibility with other forces. ACT-UP overplayed their hand in 1991. With the looming threat of another protest, ACT-UP demanded a 30-day review of DDI, which was undergoing the reformed approval process that incorporated surrogate endpoints (CD4 counts) and a historical controls of the patient’s previous history. Though they received a letter from the FDA Commissioner in response, the approval took more than 30 days, and so ACT-UP staged another protest. It was a dud in comparison to the 1988 protest, with many fewer protesters and little media attention.
This was likely because the FDA had neutralized much of the group’s criticisms by moving quite quickly with approvals and liberally allowing treatment INDs (which allow “compassionate use” of drugs outside of trial settings). The FDA had also begun reaching out to less militant AIDS groups and invited activists into Advisory Committee meetings. In a move reminiscent of how the FDA recruited prestigious academics in the 1950s and 1960s, the FDA waved the “carrot” of being a (partial) insider to neutralize opposition. Another factor may have been a changing media narrative that argued (apparently without evidence) that Reagan-era cuts were the reason for FDA slowness, which exonerated the FDA of blame.
The unofficial buyer’s clubs popularized in film were treated deferentially by the FDA in comparison to Laetrile sellers decades before. It tread lightly, likely in fear of invoking the “FDA as policeman” image.
Something inconvenient for the libertarian and AIDS activist critique of the FDA was the “medical reversal” on the DDC/DDI/AZT combination therapy. After DDC and DDI were approved in 1992 on the basis of surrogate endpoints showing boosted T-cell counts, follow-up studies failed to show benefit relative to AZT alone, and the combination was more toxic than AZT alone. This led to an internal debate in the AIDS-treatment-activist sphere. Here is one account, from Treatment Action Group, an organization that successfully pushed for stricter AIDS drug standards instead of continued loosening of regulatory standards. For a book-length treatment on the loosening of regulatory standards in the cancer world, and the consequences that followed, read “Malignant” by Vinay Prasad.
A less visible but likely more important event in FDA history was the Lasagna Committee, which was announced in 1988, and gathered many of the FDA’s critics.
Rhetorically, Administration personnel claimed from the late 1980s onward (with great plausibility) that drug review delays were primarily a matter of staffing. Internally, FDA leaders looked at the oncology drug division as an exemplar of what quick NDA review could look like, as many of its reviews were completed in less than a year. Oncology drug reviewers were quietly transferred to the anti-viral division, and new medical reviewers were hired. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, drug review times for new molecular entities – perhaps the single most important quantitative measure on which the Administration was judged in pharmaceutical politics – began to decline appreciably
In 1992 FDA Commissioner David Kessler, patient advocates, pharma industry representatives, congressional committee chairs, and President Bush’s staff agreed to the Prescription Drug User Fee Act, which informally bound the FDA to review time goals and effectively taxed drug companies per drug application. To the degree that FDA staffing was the rate-limiting step on drug approval, this would speed approval, but critics said it eroded the FDA’s willingness to push back against shoddy drugs. I am not sure how to evaluate that claim, but I don’t understand the mechanistic claim – the user fees tied the FDA to a review timeline, but it didn’t mandate approval or penalize rejection. Carpenter writes that it might have eroded FDA culture by tying it financially to pharma, but this seems somewhat implausible, because it did not tie funding to any drug in particular, or any particular target of “X% of drugs must be approved”.
FDA in the 2000s
Briefly, the FDA in the 2000s has been described as becoming increasingly lax on drug approval, particularly in cancer. This is covered in-depth in Malignant by Vinay Prasad. The Vioxx scandal, in which Merck was viewed as having concealed the fact that patients taking Vioxx were experiencing higher rates of cardiovascular complications, and in which the FDA seemed to take quite a long time to remove Vioxx from the market, also damaged the FDA’s reputation. In 2004 the FDA was widely viewed as having ignored science for political reasons when it kept Plan B (emergency contraception) prescription-only instead of making it OTC. Here is one perspective on that.
Scott Gottlieb, who had been a high-level FDA official before being Commissioner but also worked for the AEI (the leading think tank criticizing the FDA), had been anticipated to be a highly de-regulatory FDA Commissioner. I can’t find sources for this claim, but my impression is that Gottlieb has generally acquired a good bipartisan reputation and did not oversee a radical shift in FDA direction. He also won praise for moving somewhat aggressively against flavored vapes, which are widely viewed (rightly or wrongly) as a growing public health threat.
Approval is Final
Because approval of a drug is so symbolically powerful, and effectively stakes the FDA’s reputation to a given drug, the FDA only does so very deliberately. It is a social technology that reduces the immense complexity of an IND application (consisting of clinical trials, endless manufacturing and absorption data, etc.) into a binary YES/NO that physicians and nurses can rely upon. Reversing a decision is reputationally damaging, and the FDA has occasionally faced criticism from consumer-protection groups and even internal FDA employees that it is too unwilling to withdraw unsafe drugs from the market. This is problematic when drugs are approved based on surrogate endpoints instead of clinical endpoints, or when safety problems emerge after approval, as with Vioxx.
Carpenter comments on this:
It is interesting in light of these conflicts that, in the wake of the Vioxx tragedy of October 2004, higher FDA officials (including many long-term careerists) engaged in an organizationally motivated embrace of the status quo by defending randomized controlled trials and by disparaging pharmacoepidemiology. For different reasons, Deputy Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, CDER officials Sandra Kweder, Robert Temple, and others did not want to cede more control of the pharmaceutical market to David Graham and his colleagues at ODS. Yet it was also an extension of the familiar, an area where the agency had already developed capacity. Clinical trials have advantages when they are randomized and placebo-controlled. They also have drawbacks. Often tests are done on homogeneous patient populations, among patients who differ in many ways from the patients who will utilize the drugs in clinical situations. Clinical trials usually have an endpoint, and can often be too brief to allow analysts to detect whether the drug is inducing adverse events, particularly for toxicity, hepatotoxicity (or liver damage), and cardiovascular outcomes.
On Pressuring the FDA through Reputation
The FDA is responsive to both reputational and political pressure. The former is best thought of as arguing with the FDA on its own ground, which can be done from multiple perspectives. Patient advocacy groups can push the FDA to approve cancer drugs on less evidence; “thought-leader” physicians can sing the praises of an innovative drug and call the FDA slow; FDA whistleblowers can testify before Congress that the FDA is too deferential to pharma; consumer-protection groups can call the FDA’s approval based on a surrogate endpoint “reckless”. All these approaches seek to push the FDA in one direction or another, but fundamentally accept the legitimacy of the FDA and especially in the case of those pushing for more regulatory caution, hearken back to some idealized version of the FDA as a rhetorical device. In the early 2000’s, as the FDA was perceived to have relaxed its regulatory standards, especially on cancer, this occurs more often, with long-time FDA critics like Sydney Wolfe unfavorably compared the current FDA to the old FDA.
A recent example of reputational pressure was Eric Topol’s open letter to the FDA in October 2020 that criticized the emergency approvals of convalescent plasma, hydroxychloroquine, and remdemisvir, and pressured the FDA Commissioner to delay approval of a Covid-19 vaccine. Though many have criticized his actions, its method is illustrative: Topol, who has immense reputational power in academic medicine through decades of leading large clinical trials, publicly attacking Merck during the Vioxx scandal, and having critiqued the FDA in the past for its lack of action on Vioxx, was well-positioned to push the FDA to be more cautious. In addition, the emergency approvals Topol criticized (with the possible exception of Remdemisvir, and maybe Convalescent Plasma if you play with subgroup analysis….) seemed to have been regulatory bets that did not pan out, which left the FDA in a weak position. The politicization of hydroxychloroquine in particular made Topol’s arguments extremely appealing among the reputational audience (large medical journals, elite media, etc.) that the FDA caters to, which all dislike Trump. The combination of a weakened FDA and a strong attacker were the likely reasons for Topol’s success (and in the view of Alex Tabarrok and many others, the rest of the US’s disaster, since any delay in vaccine approvals likely cost many lives). Here an in-depth read on this.
The pro-regulatory counter to the previous paragraph is that vaccine approval was only an obviously good idea in retrospect and that vaccine hesitancy would rise with a rushed process. I think both of those claims are wrong, and I think Ezra Klein argues this well in a recent piece.
Political pressure takes the form of more direct action: Congressional committees can ask FDA officials to justify their actions and have public hearings that embarrass an agency that prefers less public attention. They can threaten FDA funding and if they’re playing hardball, threaten legislative action that directly alters FDA authority.
The challenges to FDA practice which resulted in sustained reform are those that combine both approaches, along with policy solutions that can be proposed at the right political moment. Conservative think tanks had long wished to tie some FDA funding to drug approvals and hold the FDA to a deadline and when conservatives made sustained and substantial gains in the 1980s and 1990s, the FDA, first informally and then through legislative change, moved in that direction.
Sustained media attention also seems to be important for pushing the FDA, but is not essential. The NCI-FDA disputes were not as high-profile as the 1980s AIDS activism but effected reform that was just as important.
An important but vague “audience” that the FDA defers to is the medical community as a whole. This might be thought of as the “elite consensus” in medicine. By directly incorporating respected medical scientists and doctors onto Advisory Committees, the FDA accedes to this audience but also partially neutralizes it. Pharmaceutical companies seek to use this in their favor as well by recruiting big-name academic stars to head clinical trials or research divisions and thereby “borrow” some of their reputation. A sustained critique of the FDA from these directions would also likely be a powerful pressure. For instance, if Advisory Committees repeatedly disagreed with the FDA in one direction, they could likely shame it into changing course.
Theoretically this might be strengthened if a sitting Congressman/woman then called a hearing to directly ask FDA officials about controversial decisions or if sympathetic media ran pieces highlighting this discrepancy. This would be a direct reputational attack on the FDA and a veiled political threat because it would raise the specter of legislative reform of the FDA with enough political attention.
Regulatory Caution is Often Proven Right
As disappointing and non-contrarian as it is to agree with a large, slow-moving government bureaucracy, my impressionistic summary of Reputation and Power along with background knowledge from Ending Medical Reversal and Malignant is that the FDA has usually been proven right in its caution. Approvals based on surrogate endpoints sometimes work, but in Malignant Vinay Prasad makes a strong argument that this often doesn’t speed approvals and that a substantial number of drugs approved on surrogate endpoints are never properly followed up on. Low regulatory standards in cancer drugs have led to a proliferation of low-value treatments approved on the basis of surrogate endpoints that don’t predict clinical (a.k.a. useful) endpoints and that may not actually provide any benefit outside of carefully selected clinical-trial participants. (Editorial Note: For a counterargument, see this post and linked SSRN article on “Type II” errors at the FDA).
A full argument that strict regulation is required for medical innovation is too long for this paper, but Ending Medical Reversal is an excellent argument along these lines. Here is a summary of it. I fully agree with Cowen and Tabarrok that the FDA was far too slow during COVID-19, but I think the libertarian critique of the FDA (usually) goes too far.
The FDA is More Powerful Than You Think
– Apart from holding pre-market approval power over a drug, the FDA also intensely regulates drug experimentation in the first place. It also regulates drug labeling. By virtue of regulating a drug’s intended use (which has substantial effects on insurance coverage) it also informally regulates medical practice in general. And in a decentralized fashion, by being able to disqualify Institutional Review Boards (IRBs), it also regulates clinical research on a fine-grained level.
This IRB-mediated power means the FDA can effectively ban individual physicians or entire institutions from research.
To the degree that overly-cautious IRB’s (who are in turn fearful of FDA attention) constrained Human Challenge Trials, this seems like an under-appreciated cost of the FDA and one that has not previously faced any sustained challenge. The lack of a constituency that is visibly harmed by overly cautious IRBs makes developing political pressure on this more challenging, but this seems valuable.
The FDA and COVID-19 Vaccines
As a thought exercise, it is worth considering what a successful attack against Topol on the vaccine delay question might have entailed. Academic stars in medicine that argued for faster vaccine approval, in contradiction to Topol, would have been rhetorically effective. A less politically polarized COVID-19 response in general would have neutralized the specific anti-Trump claims that Topol made.
Not being in an election year and so proximal to November 2 would have removed the incentive for anti-Trump individuals and institutions to view an early vaccine approval as a Trump victory and likely alleviated some concerns that the vaccines were being “rushed through.” Elite media that favored faster approval and that continually raised vaccine approval salience would not have so favorably amplified Topol’s open letter.
There were some prestigious names contra Topol on vaccines like Walid Gellad but few or none with Topol’s star-power and connections. The prominent economists who pushed for faster approval were all, fairly or not, associated with a deregulatory perspective, which likely made their arguments less credible to the FDA. If the FDA had not burned their credibility on hydroxychloroquine early on, they would have been less vulnerable to Topol’s reputational attack. The somewhat Rationalist-aligned academics and institutions that consistently pushed for vaccine approval and human challenge trials have no cachet in the medical community, and so cannot effectively engage in this reputational battle as insiders.
Willy Chertman is a 4th-year medical student at University of Miami who studied biology and political science as an undergraduate at the University of Miami. When not in school, he reads and tweets about medical research and health policy at @willyintheworld and on substack at https://willyreads.substack.com.
Dan Elton, Ph. D., is Director of Scholarship for the U.S. Transhumanist Party. You can find him on Twitter at @moreisdifferent, where he accepts direct messages. If you like his content, check out his website and subscribe to his newsletter on Substack.