Vanity Fair Article Eviscerates Globalization of Clinical Trials

The globalization of the pharmaceutical industry, and in particular the outsourcing of clinical trials to “sick Russians, homeless Poles, and slum-dwelling Chinese,” is brought to light and critically assaulted in “Deadly Medicine,” an article in Vanity Fair by Donald L. Barlett and James B. Steele.

CardioBrief readers are probably familiar with this topic, but the full magnitude of the problem has not been widely explored previously. The Vanity Fair article appears likely to spark much more discussion about the problem. (A less dramatic assessment of the problem was provided last year in a NEJM editorial by the Duke group.)

Barlett and Steele point out that in 2008 80% of new drug applications included data from foreign clinical trials, and that many companies now perform all of their testing outside the US. They explain why:

… it’s cheaper to run trials in places where the local population survives on only a few dollars a day. It’s also easier to recruit patients, who often believe they are being treated for a disease rather than, as may be the case, just getting a placebo as part of an experiment. And it’s easier to find what the industry calls “drug-naïve” patients: people who are not being treated for any disease and are not currently taking any drugs, and indeed may never have taken any—the sort of people who will almost certainly yield better test results. (For some subjects overseas, participation in a clinical trial may be their first significant exposure to a doctor.) Regulations in many foreign countries are also less stringent, if there are any regulations at all. The risk of litigation is negligible, in some places nonexistent. Ethical concerns are a figure of speech. Finally—a significant plus for the drug companies—the F.D.A. does so little monitoring that the companies can pretty much do and say what they want.


The article discusses the historical shift that has occurred only in the last few decades:

It used to be that clinical trials were done mostly by academic researchers in universities and teaching hospitals, a system that, however imperfect, generally entailed certain minimum standards. The free market has changed all that. Today it is mainly independent contractors who recruit potential patients both in the U.S. and—increasingly—overseas. They devise the rules for the clinical trials, conduct the trials themselves, prepare reports on the results, ghostwrite technical articles for medical journals, and create promotional campaigns. The people doing the work on the front lines are not independent scientists. They are wage-earning technicians who are paid to gather a certain number of human beings; sometimes sequester and feed them; administer certain chemical inputs; and collect samples of urine and blood at regular intervals. The work looks like agribusiness, not research.

According to the authors, the FDA is able to provide very little protection:

In 2008 the F.D.A. inspected just 1.9 percent of trial sites inside the United States to ensure that they were complying with basic standards. Outside the country, it inspected even fewer trial sites—seven-tenths of 1 percent. In 2008, the F.D.A. visited only 45 of the 6,485 locations where foreign drug trials were being conducted.

Barlett and Steele briefly discuss the recent case of heparin contamination, and then point out that the situation might have been even worse:

The good news was that, in this instance, the F.D.A. at least knew which country the heparin had come from. The bad news is that it does not always know where clinical trials are being conducted, or even the names or types of drugs being tested, or the purpose for which they will be prescribed once approved. Companies may withhold the foreign test data until they actually submit the application to the F.D.A. for approval. By then the agency has lost the ability to see whether the trials were managed according to acceptable standards, and whether the data collected was manipulated or fabricated.

They also link their story to the Avandia controversy:

It may be just a coincidence, but as controversy swirls around new drugs, and as the F.D.A. continues to slap medicines with new warning labels—especially the black-box warnings that indicate the most serious potential reactions—most of the problematic drugs have all undergone testing outside the United States. Clinical-trial representatives working for GlaxoSmithKline went to Iaşi, Romania, to test Avandia, a diabetes drug, on the local population. Glaxo representatives also showed up in other cities in Romania—Bucureşti, Cluj-Napoca, Craiova, and Timişoara—as well as multiple cities in Latvia, Ukraine, Slovakia, the Russian Federation, Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, Estonia, the Czech Republic, Bulgaria, Croatia, Greece, Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. That was for the largest of the Avandia clinical trials.

The Vanity Fair article contains many more repellant examples of clinical trials gone wrong, and makes clear that we shouldn’t expect any protection from institutional review boards, either at home or abroad:

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.

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