Emerging from Emergency – Two COVID-Related Developments This Week

Two announcements occurred this week, both of note and connected only by the fact that they are emblematic of the slow metamorphosis from a COVID emergency world to a post-COVID emergency one.

Emergency Ends – First, the Biden Administration announced that it would be allowing the Public Health Emergency (PHE) declaration to lapse this coming May. In a separate (and pointless) development, the U.S. House of Representatives voted to end the declaration – theater-legislation given that the initiative would never be passed into law and the policy decision was already made. The PHE, initiated during the prior Administration and extended repeatedly by the current Administration, put into place a number of policy initiatives in relation to the COVID-19 response, most significantly initiatives that enhanced the ability freer access for people to get vaccines, medicines and testing. With the end of the PHE declaration, access for individuals will shift away from government support and rely on a person’s insured status (either public or private) and any state policies in effect.

  • Impact on EUAs? One aspect largely missed in the media reporting on the PHE conclusion is in regard to whether or not the action has an impact on the Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) status conferred by FDA on a number of vaccines, diagnostic tests, and medicines during the COVID emergency. However, the PHE that will end on May 11 is distinct from the separate from the mechanism that allows FDA to issue EUAs for medical products. Therefore the status of those medical products that have EUAs will not be affected by the ending of the PHE, declared under the auspices of the Public Health Service Act. The emergency declaration that confers the ability of FDA to issue EUAs is a separate regulatory mechanism and is part of the Federal Food and Drug Cosmetic Act. FDA has stated in an updated FAQ on the topic that any change that would impact EUAs would first be published in the Federal Register with ample time provided for transition of products from EUA status.

Face-to-Face Meetings – On a separate note, it was reported this week that FDA will be engineering an eventual return to in-person meetings with industry. FDA has provided an update on the website regarding Face-to-Face (FTF) meetings with staff transitioning in 2023 to return, at least part of the time, to the FDA campus.

  • Impact on AdComms? While it is almost impossible to think of that absolutely HUGE campus empty all this time, the return naturally raises the important question as to how this change will impact industry, with specific attention to FDA Advisory Committee meetings. In a prior post, it was noted (without making a causative connection) that since meetings went virtual, they have also gone more negative, with a higher rate of “no votes” than in prior years. In the communication regarding the transition, FDA has stated that they will be re-fitting conference rooms with some fancy new equipment – face/conversation tracking cameras and boom forming microphones for example – and the agency will have in-person participation likely limited to those with speaking roles, while others will be relegated to a virtual presence. Hence, a hybrid meeting. Because the number of rooms will be limited, but growing over time, these types of meetings will seemingly start out few and expand as re-fitted facilities come on line. The agency is targeting smaller industry meetings for this effort. Sadly, no mention yet of FTF AdComms.

It would appear that we are emerging, in some respects, glacially from the COVID era. As noted in the previous posting, FDA is talking less about the pandemic than before. And while it is good to have this in the rear view mirror, it is worth noting that daily mortality is still high, people are still hospitalized at a high rate, and many people are still getting sick with it for the first time. We are moving on, but the pandemic is still very much with us.

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What They Said – Looking Back at FDA Press Releases During 2022

Each year Eye on FDA provides a look-back to see what the agency was talking about and what has changed over time. This year is a telling one and FDA may be changing the nature of the way they are communicating with the public. Moreover, this year is marked by the fact that the agency appeared to have less to say than in most recent years – perhaps taking a breather after the frenzy of the COVID-19 pandemic years.

  • Overall Fewer Press Releases – During 2022 the agency issued fewer press releases than in most previous years – 237 down from 285 the previous year and the fewest releases since 2017. There may be several factors at play. Not only was there less activity in relation to the COVID emergency, but we have had a change in leadership at FDA, which can have a big impact on how the agency communications. For example, when Dr. Gottlieb became FDA Commissioner he embraced the issuance of “Statements from the Commissioner” as a vehicle for talking about a vast array of topics, causing a huge spike in the number of releases from the agency. Prior to that time, such statements were very rare. With Dr. Califf at the helm, those statements have been used with far less frequency, issuing only a few this year. And in addition, there were far fewer new drug approvals in 2022, particularly new molecular entities, which means that there was less to talk about in that regard.
  • The Air is Gone from the COVID Balloon – Needless to say, as the COVID-19 pandemic picked up pace, so did the agency’s involvement in approving new vaccines, new treatments and in addressing the thirst for reliable public health information. But the volume of COVID- related news has fallen off dramatically as has the agency’s activities. In 2020 there were 277 press releases related to COVID, with 144 in 2021, falling precipitously to only 27 in 2022. The chart below demonstrates the diminishing role on a month-by-month basis of COVID related releases (represented by the red area).
  • FDA Began a New Method for Dispersing News – In prior years, the agency used to post news items that were not quite worthy of press release status in a vehicle called “FDA in Brief” that were posted in a place on the FDA website apart from traditional press releases. Beginning in 2022, however, FDA began to issue “FDA Roundups” which were included as part of the lineup of press releases, and “FDA in Brief” postings came to a halt. The new FDA Roundups contain a hodgepodge of news items rolled up into a single communication, topics which are not likely on their own worthy of a press release and which include mentions of COVID-related developments. They are generally issued usually twice a week, every third or fourth day, but not always. Unlike many of the agency releases, they are not translated into Spanish. This mechanism signals a whole new way for the agency to communicate its activities.
  • What They Talked About – Finally, when they were talking, what were they talking about. As already noted, there were fewer approvals and less COVID-related material. There was a higher number of releases that were available in Spanish as well as English – and since there were fewer releases, that means that a higher proportion of releases were also in Spanish over years past.

While the number of press releases did diminish this year, given the added information going out in the regular roundups, the actual volume of information may increase. As we look forward to 2023, it may be important to note that since the month started 24 days ago, FDA has issued only 3 press releases in January, with the bulk of information being sent out via the Roundups.

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When the Going Gets Tough – FDA AdComms in 2022

Through its Human Drugs Advisory Committee process FDA has a vast array of outside experts to consult on matters related to product approval as well as questions about policy or safety issues concerning approved products. The mechanism provides an open and transparent process whereby people can see and hear the deliberations and have input during open public comment as well as through a docket established for that purpose.

But for those who have spent years watching – one thing has become clear. FDA Advisory Committees (AdComms) ain’t what they used to be.

First of all, they are all still virtual. At the beginning of the pandemic, FDA moved to staging virtual meetings. For anyone who had to suffer the onerous security ritual at FDA’s campus where the meetings were generally held that may be good news. In-person FDA AdComms were not really fun. The parking lot was light years from the entrance, the security screening was slow and laborious and once you were in, your eating options were quite limited. The switch to virtual meetings has meant that you can now watch and participate from the comfort of your own home – where presumably you can get whatever you want to eat. Ultimately, the virtual meetings certainly get the job done in terms of the exchange of information – even if you do have to put up with a lot of people needing to be reminded to unmute. But certainly the meetings have lost the personal touch lost in all virtual re-setting. You could see who showed up and who talked to who. I can recall a sitting U.S. Senator walking into a meeting to confer once. And there were many open public comment periods that were quite moving as a result of patient presentations in a way that they might not be in a virtual setting. The networking that used to occur – the informal interchanges – those are not happening. So that is one – albeit small – way in which AdComms have changed. But there are others.

Second, and perhaps more important, there have been fewer of them. In 2012 there were 35 meetings held by FDA for the purpose of considering new drug approval which is almost 3 meetings a month. By contrast in 2021 there were only 10 (see blue bars below in the chart tracking meetings from 2017 – 2022).

Yet in the midst of that range, the number of new molecular entities approved by FDA actually increased. Looking at the second chart below, one can see that the number of AdComms since 2018 peaked in the same year FDA approved a record number of new molecular entities (NMEs). But if you look at more recent history, you will see that during years of robust approvals for NMEs in 2020 and 2021, the number of AdComms went down considerably. That means that as FDA was approving more drugs of first impression it was consulting with outside experts through the transparent process of Advisory Committee meetings with less frequency.

As has been speculated here in the past, the drop-off may be a result – at least in part – of the rise of new pathways for drug approval such as Breakthrough Therapy Designation which promise enhanced access to FDA decision-makers, thereby perhaps diminishing the need for outside consultation.

During 2022, the number of AdComms held to consider new products rose a bit over the previous year to 19 scheduled meetings. However, with 4 of them cancelled, there were only 15 applications considered this year through the AdComm process. Pre-pandemic numbers were consistently higher. But conversely, in 2022 the number of NMEs plummeted.

Third, AdComms aren’t as approving as they used to be. In terms of votes for recommendations of approval for new drugs, the track record was a little brutal this year. Of the 15 applications for new drug approvals in 2022 that went to AdComm consideration, the committees gave a thumbs up to only 4 (the green bars) – and in one of those FDA’s decision went against the approval recommendation of the committee and the sponsor received a Complete Response Letter. Moreover, of the 4 approval recommendations, none of them were unanimous votes in favor of the application. On the flip side – there were 11 votes on applications that failed to get a recommendation for approval (the red bars) and one of them was unanimous. In addition to the more negative tone as expressed by fewer approval recommendations, during 2022 there was an increase in meetings that were either cancelled or postponed.

So in sum, over the past few years, AdComms have been consulted less frequently while more NMEs were being approved. And when they were consulted, the outcome has been increasingly negative. Does the COVID-19 pandemic figure in here? It certainly seems that there is a difference between pre-and post- COVID patterns. Perhaps the virtual means for these meetings has an impact beyond the obvious in the deliberation. Or perhaps it is a coincidence. For those having an AdComm in 2023, we will watch and see what happens.

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Tick Tock re Tik Tok and FDA’s OPDP

Tik Tok was first released in 2016. While slow out of the starting gate with emergent media opportunities, in 2022, pharma is embracing the platform in both unbranded and branded efforts. While historically, a lot of Tik Tok use has been comprised of individuals releasing videos of them showing off dance moves and physique, the time for embracing the platform by institutional users appears has arrived. This is a familiar pattern, echoing back to the time when bloggers, Facebook and Twitter were dominated by people talking about what they had for lunch, who they were dating and where they were standing. Then commercial interests moved in changing the complexion and makeup of those platforms entirely, with pharma taking up the rear. The emergence of pharma on TikTok signals another facet in the evolution of healthcare communications and a similar pattern.

But while FDA’s Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP), the office responsible for a FDA’s regulatory approach to promotional speech by the pharmaceutical industry, has recently announced research that is aimed at uncovering more about the role and impact of influence of endorsers, that research is covering more mainstream channels , namely television. Earlier research, the agency says, shows that different types of endorsers have different levels of influence, with physicians coming in highest and celebrities coming in lowest. In the newly announced research, the agency will compare reactions among different subsets of viewers by age and education level. What that research will not tell us is, with its extremely high level of viewership, what might the impact of endorsers be on TikTok?

FDA’s OPDP began considering an approach to regulating social media long before Tik Tok came into being. The agency has always maintained that the principles underlying its approach to addressing promotional speech was somewhat platform agnostic – that a video that plays as a commercial on broadcast television is guided by the same principles as those on YouTube. Communicators and marketers would love black and white answers about concrete platforms. But OPDP speaks not in black and white, but gray. And they believe that the principles laid out to date cover pretty much any communications platform.

But in fact, that is not the case as evidenced by the fact that the agency has different approaches for print than broadcast, indicating the medium does, in fact, matter. And FDA made tacit acknowledgement of the fact when it held a public Part 15 meeting in April 2009 to put forth a framework for the discussion of regulating social and digital media, with the aim of developing a guidance related to the unique challenges offered up by new media shortly thereafter. That did not happen and in fact, it was many years before any draft guidance documents emerged and then there were principally two of them that addressed some of what was discussed in the 2009 framework – on Character Space Limitation and on Correcting Third Party Misinformation.

In fact, the medium does matter. In general, social and digital media have begged new and emergent questions related to regulatory oversight than exist within the confines of traditional print and broadcast. For example, the fact that the very basis of social media is sharing content and providing comment on it make it different in terms of impact and perception. More specifically with regard to Tik Tok presenting a myriad of videos varying greatly in subject matter, quality and taste, it is not an unusual for a user to scroll through videos quickly. It is a process that can often result in partial viewing. Many users get just the intro past the viewer before – whoosh – they are gone. So if on a branded Tik Tok risk information is at the end of the vid, how many people will never see it? Once you get the benefit – why stick around for the risk. What is the impact of that? Does FDA know? Should they? How does the medium impact the goal of fair balance, a key principle for FDA’s OPDP.

Another factor in play is that TikTok is content is most likely delivered to individuals, particularly younger people, on mobile devices. Small screens. So what I’m viewing in the way of benefits – and the impact – may be very different from the presentation of voluminous risk information.

Tik Tok aside, the issue of risk presentation somewhat related to the long-outstanding issue of optimizing websites for mobile, about which FDA has said nothing. Yet for many, mobile is the primary access means for Internet use – and therefore health information-seeking behavior. That means the use of links and in particular, their use in optimizing a web site is taking on increasing relevance in relation to mobile sites or video. And yet use of links has never been addressed fully addressed by the agency, even though it was one of the five principle questions posed by the agency in the 2009 public meeting – the only meeting held on the topic of digital and social approaches. FDA spends a good deal of effort in research aimed at how different communications mechanisms impact perception of risk and benefit, where the research is lacking is telling us whether or not the fact there are varied perceptions of risk and benefit actually matters. Given that there is a learned intermediary – a prescriber – between the patient and the product, what is the real issue at hand when communications about the product may result in varied understandings of risk?

As noted in a recent posting, FDA research has been largely focused on traditional media platforms. But the eyeballs have moved on, it is perhaps time OPDP does as well. OPDP has not produced any draft guidance documents in recent months that are relevant to these issues nor has there been much available in the way of enforcement (only four letters issued so far in 2022) to illuminate the many dark areas. The problem is, it is within those areas in which increasing numbers of us reside and consume our information.

To that end, FDA should consider:

  1. Holding another public information gathering meeting on Social and Digital media such as the one held in 2009 to gain further insights into patterns of use and gain a re-focus on the regulatory agenda that results, particularly given the migration of audiences and emergence of new platforms;
  2. Directing more research to discover the important nuances thereto, such as how the ability to scroll before the end of a branded video (where risk information might be) impact perceptions of different types of consumers (FDA is conducting research now into how adolescents perceive risk and benefit) and whether or not impacts on those perception actually presents any greater risk;
  3. Direct attention to the development of additional draft guidance in the 2023 guidance agenda for CDER – it is noticeable that there were no Advertising/Promotional guidance potential guidance documents in the 2022 agenda. Along with the lack of enforcement, this leaves a big gap.

That is a start. We are a long way from knowing how Tik Tok influences health behaviors. But one thing is for sure. Studying DTC on broadcast television isn’t going to get us there and an approach to regulating promotional speech in social media is increasingly not platform agnostic. Just wait till be get to the metaverse. If OPDP is going to stay relevant to its underlying principles and purpose, the agenda needs to move more quickly. Tick. Tock…..

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OPDP Outlines New Research

FDA published notice recently that the Office of Prescription Drug Promotion (OPDP) was proposing some new research related to the promotion of medicines by pharmaceutical companies. The research was new (kind of) but the direction was more of the same old focus – direct-to-consumer advertising (DTC).

First, just a note on why the research is of importance at all. OPDP engages in a fair amount of formal study related to various aspects of its mission to protect public health by ensuring that prescription drug promotion is truthful, balanced, and accurately communicated. To that end OPDP employs a broad range of methodologies to explore the impact of various aspects of promotional practices and speech to evaluate impact. The resulting outcome is a body of evidence that (1) can influence either the development of new guidance, or (2) the revision of existing guidance or (3) inform patterns and priorities of enforcement by the agency – and that is why we take note.

Research that is currently underway spans a number of topics, including the use of animation in DTC promotion, the impacts of disease awareness and prescription drug promotion on television, the use of superimposed text in DTC promotion, to name a few. A full list can be found here. And here are the latest being added by OPDP:

  1. Endorser Status and Actual Use in Direct-to-Consumer Television Ads – We have all seen ads on television where a person endorses a medicine. Are they effective? Who do we listen to? In fact, OPDP has already conducted one study to determine how different types of endorsers in print or internet settings and the impact of disclosure of payment status influenced audiences. The agency also noted that prior research has shown that different endorsers have different impacts – with expert physicians and pharmacists being the ones most likely to lead to purchase intentions, with consumers falling behind them and celebrities bringing up the rear. The new research will focus specifically on television advertisements to assess the impact of the disclosure of payment in an ad by an endorser. OPDP will examine endorser type (patient, physician) and will look at the impact of actual use disclosures. The agency is going to examine whether there is a difference of perception by age and education level.
  2. Perceptions of Prescription Drug Products with Medication Tracking Capabilities – There have been multiple approaches to supporting patient adherence to taking prescribed medications, ranging from pills with ingestible sensors to mobile apps. OPDP states that there is not much known about the perceptions of patient and health care providers that track medication use or work with a software element to track use. Specifically, OPDP is looking to know when a promotional communication conveys the information about ability to track use, the agency is seeking to assess how that fact may impact the perspective of the audience around risk and benefit.
  3. Targeted Mechanism of Action Presentations in Prescription Drug Promotion – When a drug promotion contains the term “targeted” OPDP wants to know if that has an effect on a person’s perception of the safety and efficacy of the product. This is based on a 2014 focus group of healthcare professionals in which OPDP even admits, there was a diversity of opinions but where some may have expressed a tendency to view a product more favorably if the term were used. OPDP is now conducting a survey that looks at how physicians and consumers might interpret a number of terms, including “targeted”. Now OPDP will engage in a study to assess the influence of “targeted mechanism of action” language and use of graphics related thereto in promotional communications.

As one can see, OPDP meticulously follows a thread, sometimes over years, to add definition and context to promotional communications, often highly nuanced. However, the agency has been largely entrenched in its research in traditional communications vehicles – DTC in print and broadcast, for example, without embarking more broadly on research that would provide insight into digital communications. Given the 2009 framework for addressing the regulatory issues associated with digital and social communications and the huge migration by consumers to those platforms and the vigorous use of the Internet in health-seeking information, it would make sense for the research to follow suit. That is particularly true given that the 2009 framework has only been partially addressed by the agency. But for now, we wait.

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