Covid-19 vaccines and drugs were developed at “warp speed” and now experts are concerned that the US Food and Drug Administration inspected too few clinical trial sites. Maryanne Demasi reports.
On 25 September 2020, the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) received a complaint by Brook Jackson who had been working for Ventavia Research Group, a Texas based company hired to run clinical trials for Pfizer’s covid-19 mRNA vaccine. Jackson, a regional director, had witnessed problems at three trial sites she was overseeing and complained to an FDA inspector about a range of problems, including falsified data, unblinded patients, and inadequately trained vaccinators who were slow to follow up on adverse events. “I thought that the FDA was going to swoop in and take care of everything. What I was reporting was so important,” Jackson told The BMJ. The FDA did not, however, inspect the trial sites in question.
This lack of oversight was not an isolated case, The BMJ has learnt. Regulatory documents show that only nine out of 153 Pfizer trial sites were subject to FDA inspection before licensing the mRNA vaccine. Similarly, only 10 out of 99 Moderna trial sites and five of 73 remdesivir trial sites were inspected.
Now, facing a backlog of site inspections, experts have criticised the FDA’s oversight of clinical trials, describing it as “grossly inadequate.” They say the problem, which predated covid-19, is not limited to a lack of inspections but also includes failing to notify the public or scientific journals when violations are identified—effectively keeping scientific misconduct from the medical establishment.
The FDA is “endangering public health” by not being candid about violations that are uncovered during clinical trial site inspections, says David Gortler, a pharmacist and pharmacologist who worked as an FDA medical reviewer between 2007 and 2011 and was then appointed as a senior adviser to the FDA commissioner in 2019-21.
“The lack of full transparency and data sharing does not allow physicians and other medical scientists to confirm the data independently and make comprehensive risk-benefit assessments,” continues Gortler, who is now a fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center thinktank in Washington DC.