Opin­ion: US and EU re­views of blood clots and J&J’s Covid vac­cine show why a trans­par­ent process mat­ters

When the CDC’s top ad­vi­so­ry com­mit­tee met last week to re­view whether a hand­ful of very rare but po­ten­tial­ly fa­tal blood clots with low platelets might be linked to J&J’s Covid-19 vac­cine, the as­sump­tion was that the com­mit­tee would, at the very least, fol­low its own agen­da and vote on whether to wait for more da­ta, or make in­ter­im age- or risk-based rec­om­men­da­tions for the vac­cine.

In­stead, the com­mit­tee did nei­ther, punt­ing its vote un­til this Fri­day when it can hold a longer dis­cus­sion with the lat­est da­ta. None of the ACIP mem­bers raised ma­jor con­cerns with the de­ci­sion, or lack there­of, de­spite some calls to not pause the vac­cine in­def­i­nite­ly.

But the in­ac­tion al­so raised con­cerns about whether the CDC and FDA were shirk­ing their re­spon­si­bil­i­ties and un­nec­es­sar­i­ly de­lay­ing J&J vac­ci­na­tions as the race to slow the spread of the coro­n­avirus con­tin­ues.

In con­trast, the Eu­ro­pean Med­i­cines Agency’s safe­ty com­mit­tee quick­ly con­clud­ed its re­view of the blood clots and the J&J vac­cine on Tues­day, de­cid­ing the vac­cine’s ben­e­fits out­weigh the risks, while adding a warn­ing to the vac­cine’s la­bel, even as no one in Eu­rope has re­ceived the vac­cine yet. Fol­low­ing the com­mit­tee’s an­nounce­ment, J&J said it would re­sume ship­ments of the vac­cine.

At first blush, the EMA, which just went through a sim­i­lar re­view with As­traZeneca’s vac­cine and came to a sim­i­lar con­clu­sion, seems to have been the more proac­tive reg­u­la­tor. The EMA made a quick de­ci­sion on the avail­able da­ta and re-start­ed the process for get­ting more shots in­to arms.

But be­yond the head­line and fi­nal de­ci­sion lies a very dif­fer­ent sto­ry.

In the case of the CDC’s com­mit­tee, any mem­ber of the pub­lic (any­where in the world) could turn on a com­put­er and watch the pro­ceed­ings, lis­ten to the se­ri­ous­ness of the de­tails, hear the ar­gu­ments and see the slides that each of the com­mit­tee mem­bers re­view. The pub­lic even has an op­por­tu­ni­ty to weigh in at the CDC meet­ing, al­though it’s un­clear how those com­ments are ac­tu­al­ly used.

The ACIP de­ci­sion to de­lay ac­tion and wait for more da­ta on the blood clots may seem like an al­most neg­li­gent re­sponse, es­pe­cial­ly giv­en the EMA’s snap de­ci­sion, when time is of the essence. But the risk cal­cu­la­tions for the two re­gions are very dif­fer­ent. The US has more of the Pfiz­er and Mod­er­na Covid vac­cines than the EU to fill the gap left by the J&J pause. The US al­so has about 10 mil­lion dos­es of the J&J vac­cine wait­ing on shelves so if the FDA and CDC of­fer a green­light, those dos­es will im­me­di­ate­ly be ad­min­is­tered.

Al­so, the EMA’s safe­ty com­mit­tee com­plet­ed its analy­sis of the J&J and As­traZeneca vac­cine da­ta be­hind closed doors, on­ly of­fer­ing a peek in­to what oc­curred via lim­it­ed press re­leas­es and press con­fer­ences that usu­al­ly lead to as many new ques­tions as an­swers.

Pe­ter Ar­lett

For in­stance, at each of the EMA press con­fer­ences on the vac­cine la­bel up­dates, Pe­ter Ar­lett, the head of phar­ma­covig­i­lance at the EMA, has un­veiled new fig­ures on the cas­es of blood clots with low platelets for each of the vac­cines au­tho­rized in the EU.

But in do­ing so, Ar­lett fails to of­fer any fur­ther in­for­ma­tion on how many to­tal dos­es of the vac­cines have been ad­min­is­tered or where these new cas­es oc­curred. At least twice now, ei­ther Ar­lett or some­one else at the EMA has had to cor­rect or clar­i­fy what the num­bers mean, or where the cas­es did or did not oc­cur.

If the EMA is go­ing to re­lease these num­bers, why not put them in a press re­lease and ful­ly ex­plain them? In­stead, the agency leaves it to the pub­lic to de­cide on what they might mean, which is con­cern­ing as they are not ap­ples-to-ap­ples com­par­isons. Pfiz­er see­ing 25 cas­es of the blood clots and low platelets ver­sus J&J see­ing 8 cas­es are not com­pa­ra­ble con­sid­er­ing how many tens of mil­lions of more dos­es of the Pfiz­er vac­cine have been ad­min­is­tered.

In oth­er in­stances (e.g. re­leas­ing clin­i­cal tri­al re­sults), the EMA has tak­en a lead­ing role in show­ing the world how trans­paren­cy works. But in this case, even with the FDA and CDC tak­ing ex­tra days to make its de­ci­sion, and even if the de­ci­sion is to re­strict the use of the J&J vac­cine to a spe­cif­ic pop­u­la­tion, the im­por­tance of trans­paren­cy is clear.

Health­care Dis­par­i­ties and Sick­le Cell Dis­ease

In the complicated U.S. healthcare system, navigating a serious illness such as cancer or heart disease can be remarkably challenging for patients and caregivers. When that illness is classified as a rare disease, those challenges can become even more acute. And when that rare disease occurs in a population that experiences health disparities, such as people with sickle cell disease (SCD) who are primarily Black and Latino, challenges can become almost insurmountable.

The End­points 11: They've got mad mon­ey and huge am­bi­tions. It's time to go big or go home

These days, selecting a group of private biotechs for the Endpoints 11 spotlight begins with a sprint to get ahead of IPOs and the M&A teams at Big Pharma. I’ve had a couple of faceplants earlier this year, watching some of the biotechs on my short list choose a quick leap onto Nasdaq or into the arms of a buyer.

Vividion, you would have been a great pick for the Endpoints 11. I’m sorry I missed you.

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Dave Lennon, former president of Novartis Gene Therapies

So what hap­pened with No­var­tis Gene Ther­a­pies? Here's your an­swer

Over the last couple of days it’s become clear that the gene therapy division at Novartis has quietly undergone a major reorganization. We learned on Monday that Dave Lennon, who had pursued a high-profile role as president of the unit with 1,500 people, had left the pharma giant to take over as CEO of a startup.

Like a lot of the majors, Novartis is an open highway for head hunters, or anyone looking to staff a startup. So that was news but not completely unexpected.

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Who are the women su­per­charg­ing bio­phar­ma R&D? Nom­i­nate them for this year's spe­cial re­port

The biotech industry has faced repeated calls to diversify its workforce — and in the last year, those calls got a lot louder. Though women account for just under half of all biotech employees around the world, they occupy very few places in C-suites, and even fewer make it to the helm.

Some companies are listening, according to a recent BIO survey which showed that this year’s companies were 2.5 times more likely to have a diversity and inclusion program compared to last year’s sample. But we still have a long way to go. Women represent just 31% of biotech executives, BIO reported. And those numbers are even more stark for women of color.

FDA+ roundup: Bs­U­FA III ready for show­time, court tells FDA to re-work com­pound­ing plan, new guid­ance up­dates and more

The FDA has now spelled out what exactly will be included in the third iteration of Biosimilar User Fee Act (BsUFA) from 2023 through 2027, which similarly to the prescription drug deal, sets fees that industry has to pay for submitting applications, in exchange for firm timelines that the agency must meet.

This latest deal includes several sweeteners for the biosimilar industry, which has yet to make great strides in the US market, with shorter review timelines for safety labeling updates and updates to add or remove an indication that does not contain efficacy data.

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FDA au­tho­rizes Pfiz­er's vac­cine boost­er for se­niors, those at high risk for se­vere Covid-19

The Biden administration’s goal of kicking off its booster shot drive for the entire US population this week is not quite going as planned.

First, Pfizer applied for approval of a supplemental application for the booster shots, but since last Friday’s adcomm reviewing them, the plan has devolved into an EUA, which the FDA issued late Thursday evening.

The population that is now eligible for the booster, six months after receiving the first pair of Pfizer-BioNTech vaccines, also narrowed from what Pfizer applied for (everyone who’s eligible for the initial Pfizer shots) to just those who are 65 or older, or at high-risk of a Covid infection, including health care workers and others with occupational hazards.

Stéphane Bancel, AP Images

Fi­nal analy­sis of US-fund­ed Mod­er­na Covid vac­cine tri­al shows 98% ef­fi­ca­cy against se­vere dis­ease

A final look at the results of the placebo-controlled Moderna trial in the New England Journal of Medicine, published Thursday afternoon, shows how the vaccine continues to prevent Covid-19 and severe cases after more than five months following the second shot.

Of the more than 30,000 enrolled in the trial that ultimately led to the vaccine’s EUA, only two people in the vaccine group got a severe form of the disease, compared to 106 in the placebo group — leading to an efficacy of 98%.

When ef­fi­ca­cy is bor­der­line: FDA needs to get more con­sis­tent on close-call drug ap­provals, agency-fund­ed re­search finds

In the exceedingly rare instances in which clinical efficacy is the only barrier to a new drug’s approval, new FDA-funded research from FDA and Stanford found that the agency does not have a consistent standard for defining “substantial evidence” when flexible criteria are used for an approval.

The research comes as the FDA is at a crossroads with its expedited-review pathways. The accelerated approval pathway is under fire as the agency recently signed off on a controversial new Alzheimer’s drug, with little precedent to explain its decision. Meanwhile, top officials like Rick Pazdur have called for a major push to simplify and clarify all of the various expedited pathways, which have grown to be must-haves for sponsors of nearly every newly approved drug.

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Emma Walmsley, GlaxoSmithKline CEO (Credit: Fang Zhe/Xinhua/Alamy Live News)

The fire un­der Glax­o­SmithK­line's Em­ma Walm­s­ley grows as an­oth­er well-known ac­tivist in­vestor grabs its pitch­fork — re­port

Bluebell Capital Partners, a proxy brawler fresh off a campaign to oust global food giant Danone’s CEO and most of its board of directors, has bought a stake in UK drugmaker GlaxoSmithKline with its eyes trained directly on Emma Walmsley, the Financial Times reported Wednesday.

The London-based hedge fund joins another notorious activist firm in Paul Singer’s Elliott Management, which earlier this year called for a shakeup in leadership at GSK to handle what the company described as a wealth of riches across the drug giant’s portfolio hindered by limited vision from top staff.