Journalism

Deadly Medicine

January 2011

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The Avandia case and others like it have prompted the U.S. Justice Department to mount an investigation under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. While it is legal for doctors in this country to accept money from drug companies for acting as consultants, this is not the case abroad, where doctors often are government employees, and such payments can be considered bribes. There are other legal issues. So far, Glaxo has paid out more than $1 billion to settle lawsuits arising from claims against Avandia and other drugs. The Senate Finance Committee calculates that, since May 2004, seven drug companies have paid out more than $7 billion in fines and penalties stemming from unlawful drug dealings. Pfizer paid the largest such fine in history—$2.3 billion for promoting off-label uses of the arthritis drug Bextra.

In theory, pharmaceutical companies are barred from selling a drug for any purpose other than the one that the F.D.A. has approved on the basis of clinical testing. But the reality is different. The minute a drug receives the green light from the F.D.A. for a specific treatment, the sponsoring company and its allies begin campaigns to make it available for other purposes or for other types of patients. The antidepressant Paxil was tested on adults but sold off-label to treat children. Seroquel, an anti-psychotic, was marketed as a treatment for depression. Physicians, often on retainer from pharmaceutical companies, are free to prescribe a drug for any reason if they entertain a belief that it will work. This practice turns the population at large into unwitting guinea pigs whose adverse reactions may go unreported or even unrecognized.

To secure the F.D.A.’s approval for Seroquel, which ultimately would go to treat schizophrenia, bipolar disorders, and manic episodes associated with bipolar disorder, AstraZeneca, the fifth-largest pharmaceutical company, conducted clinical trials across Asia, Europe, and the United States. Among the sites: Shenyang and more than a dozen other cities in China, and multiple cities in Bulgaria, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Croatia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Poland, the Russian Federation, Serbia, Ukraine, and Taiwan. The F.D.A. initially approved the drug for the treatment of schizophrenia. But while schizophrenia may have opened the door, off-label sales opened the cash register. Money poured in by the billions as AstraZeneca promoted the drug for the treatment of any number of other conditions. It was prescribed for children with autism-spectrum disorders and retardation as well as for elderly Alzheimer’s patients in nursing homes. The company touted the drug for treatment of aggression, anxiety, anger-management issues, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, dementia, and sleeplessness. Up to 70 percent of the prescriptions for Seroquel were written for a purpose other than the one for which it had been approved, and sales rose to more than $4 billion a year.

It turned out, however, that AstraZeneca had been less than candid about the drug’s side effects. One of the most troubling: patients often gained weight and developed diabetes. This meant a new round of drugs to treat conditions caused by Seroquel. In an internal e-mail from 1997 discussing a study comparing Seroquel with an older anti-psychotic drug, Haldol, a company executive praised the work of the project physician, saying she had done a great “smoke-and-mirrors job,” which “should minimize (and dare I venture to suggest) could put a positive spin (in terms of safety) on this cursed study.” After the e-mail was disclosed, in February 2009, the company said that the document cannot “obscure the fact that AstraZeneca acted responsibly and appropriately as it developed and marketed” the drug. In April, AstraZeneca reached a half-billion-dollar settlement with the federal government over its marketing of Seroquel. The U.S. attorney in Philadelphia, where the settlement was filed, declared that the company had “turned patients into guinea pigs in an unsupervised drug test.” Meanwhile, the company was facing more than 25,000 product-liability lawsuits filed by people who contended the drug had caused their diabetes.

Death Toll

The only people who seem to care about the surge of clinical trials in foreign countries are the medical ethicists—not historically a powerhouse when it comes to battling the drug companies. A team of physician-researchers from Duke University, writing last year in the New England Journal of Medicine, observed that “this phenomenon raises important questions about the economics and ethics of clinical research and the translation of trial results to clinical practice: Who benefits from the globalization of clinical trials? What is the potential for exploitation of research subjects? Are trial results accurate and valid, and can they be extrapolated to other settings?” The Duke team noted that, in some places, “financial compensation for research participation may exceed participants’ annual wages, and participation in a clinical trial may provide the only access to care” for those taking part in the trial. In 2007, residents of a homeless shelter in Grudziadz, Poland, received as little as $2 to take part in a flu-vaccine experiment. The subjects thought they were getting a regular flu shot. They were not. At least 20 of them died. The same distorting economic pressures exist for local hospitals or doctors, who may collect hundreds of dollars for every patient they enroll. In theory, a federal institutional review board is supposed to assess every clinical trial, with special concern for the welfare of the human subjects, but this work, too, has now been outsourced to private companies and is often useless. In 2009 the Government Accountability Office conducted a sting operation, winning approval for a clinical trial involving human subjects; the institutional review board failed to discover (if it even tried) that it was dealing with “a bogus company with falsified credentials” and a fake medical device. This was in Los Angeles. If that is oversight in the U.S., imagine what it’s like in Kazakhstan or Uganda. Susan Reverby, the Wellesley historian who uncovered the U.S. government’s syphilis experiments in Guatemala during the 1940s, was asked in a recent interview to cite any ongoing experimental practices that gave her pause. “Frankly,” she said, “I am mostly worried about the drug trials that get done elsewhere now, which we have little control over.”

The pharmaceutical industry, needless to say, has a different view. It argues that people participating in a clinical trial may be getting the highest quality of medical care they have ever received. That may be true in the short term. But, unfortunately, the care lasts only until the trial is completed. Many U.S. medical investigators who manage drug trials abroad say they prefer to work overseas, where regulations are lax and “conflict of interest” is a synonym for “business as usual.” Inside the United States, doctors who oversee trials are required to fill out forms showing any income they have received from drug companies so as to guard against financial biases in trials. This explains in part why the number of clinical-trial investigators registered with the F.D.A. fell 5.2 percent in the U.S. between 2004 and 2007 while increasing 16 percent in Eastern Europe, 12 percent in Asia, and 10 percent in Latin America. In a recent survey, 70 percent of the eligible U.S. and Western European clinical investigators interviewed said they were discouraged by the current regulatory environment, partly because they are compelled to disclose financial ties to the pharmaceutical industry. In trials conducted outside the United States, few people care.

In 2009, according to the Institute for Safe Medication Practices, 19,551 people died in the United States as a direct result of the prescription drugs they took. That’s just the reported number. It’s decidedly low, because it is estimated that only about 10 percent of such deaths are reported. Conservatively, then, the annual American death toll from prescription drugs considered “safe” can be put at around 200,000. That is three times the number of people who die every year from diabetes, four times the number who die from kidney disease. Overall, deaths from F.D.A.-approved prescription drugs dwarf the number of people who die from street drugs such as cocaine and heroin. They dwarf the number who die every year in automobile accidents. So far, these deaths have triggered no medical crusades, no tough new regulations. After a dozen or so deaths linked to runaway Toyotas, Japanese executives were summoned to appear before lawmakers in Washington and were subjected to an onslaught of humiliating publicity. When the pharmaceutical industry meets with lawmakers, it is mainly to provide campaign contributions.

And with more and more of its activities moving overseas, the industry’s behavior will become more impenetrable, and more dangerous, than ever.

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