Where have all the journalists gone? More bad reporting on Avandia

I thought journalists were supposed to be impartial, report multiple sides of the story, and only use facts. At least in the case of reporting on prescription medications, Avandia in particular, it seems those “rules” no longer apply.

Today the Wall Street Journal announced that the FDA Weights Halting Avandia Safety Study .
They are basing this report on a Letter written to Sen. Grassley on 3/30 by the FDA commissioner in response to Grassley’s findings on the FDA’s handling of Avandia. If I were a journalist (and I don’t pretend to be one), after reading this letter, the headlines I might have suggested to my editor would have been:

FDA to Grassley: You Have to Wait Until July or
FDA seeks Big Gun in Institute of Medicine to Help with Avandia

Nowhere in the 5 page letter does it say ANYTHING about the FDA considering halting an ongoing study. Here is the particular section that the journalists from the Wall Street Journal are basing their headline on:

“I recognize that head to head safety trials can pose challenging ethical questions. On the one hand, such a trial, by its very nature, must be conducted in the face of a safety concern. One the other hand, if one therapy is clearly inferior to the other, then such a trial should not be conducted, because it would place one group of patients at unnecessary risk.”

Though the next paragraph mentions that some experts believe that Avandia is inferior to Actos, the paragraph concludes that some experts, in particular the American College of Cardiology and the American Heart Association, have not come to these conclusions.

I implore you to read the entire letter, and read it in the context that the head of the FDA is writing this letter in response to a Senator who wrote a very public and scathing report on how their operation is run. The report does not read, “thank you senator, we were wrong and will consider stopping this dangerous trial.” Rather, what the report actually says is that safety is important to the FDA, in 2005 they became aware of a questionable safety issue but decided it did not warrant going public, when it did (with pressure from Sen. Grassley) the FDA met in July 2007 and decided to keep Avandia on the market, there has been new, more robust data since 2007 which seems to indicate that Avandia is safe, and we have already planned (even before the Grassley report came out) to meet this July to review all the data again.

Read in its entirety, the FDA had already planned to review all of the Avandia data, including the TIDE study in July. The letter to Grassley, that the Wall Street Journal is reporting on, gives no indications that these plans have changed or that the FDA is now considering stopping an Avandia study. If anything, in a very subtle way, the FDA is telling Grassley why the study is needed.

Bad reporting on this subject is not new. In my post More Avandia Scare- Again, Unwarranted back in February, I wrote about New York Times piece that broke the story on the Grassely report. While I do believe the story was worth reporting, the Times failed to mention that everything in the report was from 2007. Both the Grassley report and the Times failed to mention that there was new data, specifically the RECORD trial (see For the RECORD, Avandia does not cause heart attacks, Avandia Vindicated, ) which seems to exhonerate Avandia from any heart risk. This is the real story, that a good diabetes drug continues to get bashed in the media, when a very well done study presented almost a year ago has shown in to be safe.

As referenced above, I believe the real story in the FDA commissioner’s letter to Grassley is the fact that they are asking the Institute of Medicine to look into the matter. More importantly, they seem to indicate that the IOM’s report will be ready by the July 2010 advisory board. My read on this is that the FDA, based on the scientific data available, feels that Avandia is actually a safe drug. However, given the scrutiny and political pressure they are under, likely believes that anything less than a “pull it from the market” recommendation from the July advisory committee will keep it under fire. Thus, they have brought the impartial and well respected IOM on board. The only reason I can think of for doing this is to back them up on a decision in favor of Avandia.

Here’s something to think about:
Because of the media storm caused by Avandia, the FDA now requires any new diabetes drug to prove that it does not cause heart attacks before being approved (see Rough Times for New Diabetes Drugs: The Diabetes Conspiracy Part III ). These criteria are not surprisingly pretty strict. Based on the results of the RECORD trial, Avandia has now met this new standard of cardiovascular safety, now required of all new diabetes drugs. How will the FDA be able to continue to say that there might be a risk, let alone pull the drug and stop a safety study, when Avandia has now met the FDA’s rigid cardiovascular safety criteria?

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