Pharma Fails Credibility Test, Misses Opportunity, on Transparency

7/29/13Follow @xconomy

Some of the biggest scandals in the pharmaceutical industry (think Vioxx and Avandia) have been about drug safety, and how much of the clinical trial data on prescription drugs—especially the negative stuff—is kept hidden.

Not surprisingly, some scientists, physicians, regulators, and patients have joined forces to push for all clinical-trial results, positive or negative, to be openly published. The big drugmakers could choose to join with them to dig deep and truly scrutinize all clinical trial data, not just the studies they want to publicize. It’s an opportunity to right their wrongs and rebuild the trust they’ve broken. Instead, embarrassingly, they have chosen to push back.

The industry, under pressure from its critics, has gone to work on drafting new rules around clinical trial openness. But instead of truly embracing the idea, they’ve come up with alternative guidelines that sound good, but are weak enough to allow them to keep on hiding clinical trial data whenever they see fit. And they’ve tried to scare patient groups with warnings about privacy.

Last week, The Guardian reported on a pharma industry memo that described a plan to enlist patient advocacy groups to fight against transparency in clinical trial data. The gist is that companies are trying to scare patients into thinking greater openness will lead to wide-scale misinterpretation of data, and false health scares.

It’s baloney.

This story of behind-the-scenes lobbying came to light just a few weeks after the European Medicines Agency, the key drug regulatory office in the European Union, published a long-awaited draft report for public consideration on its proposal for greater openness of clinical trial data. The proposal would allow independent scientists to conduct much more thorough reviews of the safety and effectiveness of drugs. As noted in the introduction to the report, there’s a strong scientific argument in favor of greater openness. “It will enable the wider scientific community to make use of detailed and high-quality clinical trial data to develop new knowledge in the interest of public health.”

Around the same time, industry trade groups came out with their own voluntary guidelines on clinical trial openness. The guidelines from the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America (PHRMA), and the European Federation of Pharmaceutical Industries and Associations (EFPIA) are supposed to set a minimum bar for disclosure, which member companies can go beyond if they like. The guidelines, which you can read here, are scheduled to go into effect on Jan. 1.

So the industry says it’s all for greater transparency, and then runs a lobbying campaign to fight the transparency movement. That takes a lot of cynicism.

Stephen Friend, former Merck executive, now president of Sage Bionetworks

“There’s a transgression of trust here,” says Stephen Friend, a former Merck senior vice president and now the leader of a biological data-sharing nonprofit called Sage Bionetworks. “This is the opposite of what we thought Pharma was trying to do, which is build trust and try to be more open.”

Industry trade groups have long argued that companies need to keep most of their data proprietary for competitive reasons. They say companies would never invest the considerable time and money it takes to develop new drugs if someone could easily come along and copy the innovative work while a product is patent-protected. There is truth to that, and clearly some care needs to be taken with data releases to protect intellectual property rights. Nobody wants a system that discourages investment in R&D of new therapies.

But if you look at the industry’s proposed transparency guidelines, they are pitiful. There is no hard commitment in there to publish summary results of failed studies, or to release the patient-level data that is the basis for trial results.

Instead, the industry is proposing that it will set up its own scientific review boards to consider data requests from “qualified scientific and medical researchers” and to evaluate the “legitimacy of the research question,” according to the guidelines.

What does that mean? Will pharma companies release data only to people they perceive as friendly scientists, or those sponsored by its research grants? Or will companies fully comply with requests from independent scientific critics like Steve Nissen of the Cleveland Clinic or Tom Jefferson, a Cochrane Collaboration researcher who has battled with Roche over access to clinical trial data on the flu drug oseltamivir (Tamiflu)? Will the people on pharma’s scientific review boards consider their research questions legitimate?

The industry proposal also calls for providing “synopses” of clinical study reports (CSRs). That doesn’t go far enough, and it also allows pharma to gloss over or downplay unpleasant facts when it writes up said synopses.

It’s important that summary results of failed clinical trials are published in scientific literature. Nobody likes to fail, and it’s embarrassing for companies, but fellow scientists can’t learn from the failures if they remain hidden. In an industry with so much failure, learning from these cases would reduce R&D waste. And sharing the data is … Next Page »

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  • Pengguang Wu

    On the logistic side, wonder how much data are held by a chain of middlemen with frequent “programming errors” as some recent headline showed.

  • Richard Gayle

    Great addition to this important discussion. Big Pharmas have been shooting themselves in the foot for years. Looks like they continue.

  • http://www.hollyip.com/ Suleman Ali

    Pharma need to wake up to the fact that transparency is becoming a norm in public affairs, and is an essential part of trust, at the end of the day.