A compelling link between severe COVID and immune system response

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Help for your immune system.

One of the most perplexing elements of the novel coronavirus is its variability. It’s common knowledge that while many infected people will experience mild symptoms, those who are older, male and have underlying chronic disease are at much higher risk of severe disease and death.

Two recent papers published in Science provide some of the most compelling evidence behind the impaired immune response seen in severely affected patients—and a potential link to the gender disparities in outcomes.

Both papers are centered on the role of Type I interferon, an immune protein that provides a first line of defense in viral illness.

The first study analyzed the DNA of over 650 patients with severe COVID to assess mutations in the genes that code for interferon-1. Some 3.5 percent of patients with life-threatening COVID carried mutations, but these were found in none of the control patients who only had mild disease.

The second paper evaluated the presence of antibodies to the patient’s own interferon, finding that 14 percent of patients with severe disease had these “auto-antibodies”, which are extremely rare in the general population. Interestingly, 12.5 percent of severely ill men had the antibodies, compared to just 2.6 percent of women with severe disease. Previous work linked poor interferon response to the X chromosome, highlighting the potential increased risk for men. 

Taken together, these studies indicate that impaired Type I interferon could contribute to 1 in 7 severe COVID cases. Scientists are hopeful this work could lead to new diagnostics that estimate a patient’s risk of poor outcomes. This growing body of work, with new insights published every week in Science and other journals, underscores the rapid advances being made in understanding and treating this novel and complex disease.

A high-profile reminder of the importance of therapeutics

https://mailchi.mp/45f15de483b9/the-weekly-gist-october-9-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

Stemline Therapeutics Inc (NASDAQ:STML): What's The Other Side Of The  Story? - Market Exclusive

Along with the many political and public health questions raised by President Trump’s recent and very public bout with COVID-19 is the issue of when the public might have access to the same monoclonal antibody therapy that he received from doctors last week.

Having seen the President tout the benefits of Regeneron’s experimental antibody cocktail, COVID patients have reportedly been asking physicians about participating in clinical trials of the therapy, which is only available on a “compassionate use” basis outside of ongoing studies.

On Wednesday, Regeneron announced it had submitted a request to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) for an Emergency Use Authorization (EUA) for the treatment, claiming that early data from ongoing trials showed promise in moderating coronavirus symptoms.

Eli Lilly, which is developing a similar antibody therapy, also announced plans to apply for an EUA, saying its drug has shown the ability to reduce hospitalizations among those infected with the virus.

The US government has already paid Regeneron $450M to access up to 300,000 doses of the therapy, and on Friday a spokesman for the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) said the government would acquire up to a million doses from Regeneron and Eli Lilly by the end of the year, which it will allocate to hospitals in a similar approach to the way it has distributed Gilead Science’s antiviral drug remdesivir, which the President was also given last week.
 
News on the availability of potentially effective therapies to mitigate the impact of COVID-19 is welcome, particularly as the timeline for COVID vaccines appears to be lengthening.

In guidance released this week, the FDA said it would require pharmaceutical companies to submit two months’ worth of data on vaccine safety and efficacy after patients received their final dose, as part of the EUA application process. The data requirement effectively means that, despite repeated promises from the White House, none of the vaccine candidates being developed will be available before the November 3rd Presidential election.

The head of the government’s vaccine program said separately this week that he expects data on vaccines being developed by Pfizer and Moderna to be available by December. As many have predictedit will take months beyond that for a safe and effective vaccine to be distributed and administered to a majority of Americans.

Challenges will abound: ensuring sufficient manufacturing capacity, managing a complex supply chain, setting up specialized distribution and vaccination centers, and tracking those vaccinated (especially if two shots will be required). A massive public education campaign will also be needed to overcome vaccine hesitancy and ensure widespread immunization. And all of that will take time, and money. 

President Trump’s recent and unfortunate illness underscores the importance of paying equal attention to the development of therapies and treatments—which are essentially a holding maneuver to get us through the coming winter and spring, and eventually to the promise of immunity that lies beyond.

Medical ethics in pandemic times

https://www.axios.com/medical-ethics-clinical-trials-pandemic-eb77f819-76f1-45b0-af8a-cf181bc1607b.html

The Importance of Medical Ethics | Medical Ethics – theMSAG

The COVID-19 pandemic is rife with scientific and medical uncertainty, including debates about the ethics of using experimental treatments.

The big picture: As the global pandemic continues, the tension between providing the best available care for patients and performing trials to determine whether that care is effective risks complicating the medical response.

The big question: Is it unethical to withhold a possible treatment from someone who instead receives a placebo, or to continue to administer that treatment without having collected data on whether it works?

Driving the news: President Trump received an experimental monoclonal antibody cocktail via expanded access or “compassionate use,” which allows someone to access a treatment outside of a clinical trial before it is approved, provided their doctor, the drug company and the FDA agree.

  • Experts say his subsequent claims of the treatment being a cure risks reducing enrollment in clinical trials, flooding companies with requests for access to a limited number of doses and creating false hope for patients.
  • And the president’s treatment raised questions about fairness — would other COVID-19 patients have similar access?
  • “It’s important that we not say the president got access to a beneficial experimental intervention because we don’t know if it is beneficial or if there are adverse events associated with it, says Alex John London, director of the Center for Ethics and Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. 

He and other ethicists say the president’s treatment highlights a broader question about the ethical obligation doctors have to the science needed to determine if those treatments are effective.

Between the lines: Offering patients experimental COVID-19 drugs via emergency use authorizations, expanded access programs and compassionate use can slow needed clinical trials.

  • Researchers have struggled to enroll people in clinical trials in which they may receive a placebo if patients can access a drug directly.
  • One example: “There’s been some hiccups with the expanded access use for convalescent plasma, because it was something that precluded people from enrolling in a randomized control trial, so it took longer, and we still don’t quite know how well convalescent plasma works,” says Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

More than 100,000 COVID-19 patients at almost 2,800 U.S. hospitals received convalescent plasma from people who survived the virus and developed antibodies to it.

  • “It’s easy for people to say you enrolled 100,000 people, there should have been a trial. But a small number of those 2,800 hospitals would have been capable of doing those trials,” says the Mayo Clinic’s Michael Joyner, who leads the program.
  • There are now smaller trials taking place to answer questions about the effectiveness of plasma in treating the disease in different stages.
  • But if this happens again, Joyner says programs at academic medical centers should be peeled off earlier to form clinical trials run in parallel.

The gold standard for determining whether a treatment works is through randomized controlled trials in which people are randomly assigned to receive a treatment or to be in a control group.

  • In the uncertainty and urgency of a pandemic, some physicians argue randomizing people to receive a placebo goes against physicians’ ethics and that it is better to do something to help patients than do nothing.
  • “That’s a false dichotomy because the question is, what should we do?” says London.

From a doctor’s perspectiveit’s important to weigh the collective value of theearly drug data and the individual needs of the patient, Adalja says.

  • “I do think you have to be extra careful when you’re thinking about drugs that you don’t have strong randomized control trial data for, or the data is incomplete or inconclusive,” he adds.
  • “What people have to ask themselves is what constitutes evidence or proof and where do you want to make the bets in a pandemic?” says Joyner.
  • “There is a moral, legal and public health obligation to do those trials before people use those products,” says Alison Bateman-House, a professor of medical ethics at NYU’s Grossman School of Medicine who co-chairs an international working group on pre-approval access to treatments.
  • She says she understands the emotional pull on doctors to help patients whose health is quickly deteriorating, “but it is not evidence-based medicine.”

“There is no ethical obligation to give anyone an unproven substance.”

Alison Bateman-House, NYU Grossman School of Medicine

In a forthcoming paper, London argues that when medical professionals don’t have the knowledge they need to treat patients, it is their responsibility “to band together and run studies to get evidence to discharge [their] very ancient medical obligation.”

  • Medical ethics should be updated to include a responsibility to learn in the face of uncertainty, says London, who was part of a committee that called for research to be incorporated into the response to the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2014.
  • The U.K.’s large randomized RECOVERY trial is based in part on the Ebola experience, says London. “Because of it, we know dexamethasone is effective and hydroxychloroquine is not.”

What to watch: How the FDA’s handling of treatments during the pandemic influences other drugs and diseases once the pandemic ends.

The bottom line: “Medicine doesn’t have a good handle on uncertainty, and that is a problem,” says London.

COVID-19 vaccine verdicts loom as next big market risk

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/covid-19-vaccine-verdicts-loom-050615809.html

Optimism that vaccines are on the way to end the coronavirus pandemic has been a major factor in this year’s U.S. stock resurgence. That will face a critical test in coming weeks, as investors await clinical data on whether they actually work.

A UBS analysis found that about 40% of the market’s gains since May can be pegged to hopes for vaccines to protect against COVID-19, which has killed over 960,000 worldwide and rocked the global economy.

Global efforts to develop a vaccine are coming to a head, with late-stage data on trials by companies such as Pfizer Inc <PFE.N> and Moderna Inc <MRNA.O> possible as soon as October or November. Disappointing results could further shake markets that have recently grown turbulent on worries over fiscal stimulus delays and uncertainty around the Nov. 3 U.S. presidential election.

“The anticipation is that this stuff is going to work,” said Walter Todd, chief investment officer at Greenwood Capital in South Carolina. “So any news to the contrary could be a risk to the market.”

The number of vaccines in development could blunt the negative market impact of any single setback. More than a half-dozen vaccines globally are in late-stage trials out of over 30 currently being tested in humans, according to the World Health Organization.

“We are setting ourselves up for success in the sense of if you throw enough spaghetti at the wall, hopefully at least one noodle sticks,” said Liz Young, director of market strategy at BNY Mellon Investment Management.

That could explain why stocks overall barely reacted earlier this month, when AstraZeneca Plc <AZN.L> and partner Oxford University paused global trials of one of the leading vaccine candidates after a participant in its U.K. trial became seriously ill. The trials have resumed in Britain, Brazil and South Africa, but remain on hold in the United States.

Some forecasts on vaccine availability have grown less optimistic. Good Judgment, a company whose forecasters make predictions based on publicly available evidence, put the chances that a vaccine will be widely distributed in the United States by the end of March at 54%. That is up from an estimate of less than 20% in early July, but down from above 70% earlier this month.

Pfizer and Moderna could report initial efficacy results in October or November based on an early read of data, followed by data from companies such as AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson <JNJ.N> and Novavax Inc <NVAX.O>.

An approval or emergency use authorization this year could lead to a surge in travel, leisure and other stocks that have been decimated by pandemic-related shutdowns, while also fueling a long-awaited shift into value stocks from tech and other growth names that have led the market for years.

Even if a vaccine is approved, questions persist about how easily and quickly it can be distributed. President Trump and his health officials have issued conflicting predictions about when the general public could have access.

“The potential for market disappointment will likely come from the realization that manufacturing and broad distribution will take longer,” said Art Hogan, chief market strategist at National Securities.

An approved, broadly distributed and accepted vaccine could result in a gain of about 300 points to the S&P 500, or more than 8% at the index’s current level, according to Keith Parker, head of U.S. and global equity strategy at UBS.

If a vaccine is widely distributed in the first quarter, BofA Global Research projects global gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 6.3% in 2021, compared with 5.6% if that does not occur until the third quarter.

Disappointing clinical trial news could result in a loss of 100 points from the S&P 500, or about 3%, Parker estimates.

While the market might be able to handle one vaccine setback “reasonably well,” several setbacks could cause a rethink of the vaccine race, he said.

 

 

 

 

Nearly half of Americans hesitant to get a COVID vaccine

https://mailchi.mp/365734463200/the-weekly-gist-september-11-2020?e=d1e747d2d8

The race for a COVID-19 vaccine is well underway, with dozens of vaccine candidates being tested worldwide. Because vaccines typically take a decade to get to market, the pace of Operation Warp Speed—which aims to deliver a COVID vaccine by January 2021—has raised concerns that the government will sacrifice vaccine safety and efficacy for speed.

Shown in the graphic above, a survey conducted by Jarrard Phillips Cate & Hancock and Public Opinion Strategies found nearly half of American adults are on the fence about getting a COVID-19 vaccine, with over 20 percent saying they are unlikely to get one at all.

This hesitancy is greater among both female and Black respondents—with the latter doubly concerning given that Blacks have been disproportionately impacted by the disease. The top reasons given for skepticism include concerns about side effects (47 percent) and the risk of becoming infected by the vaccine (22 percent).

A related survey from STAT and the Harris Poll found that 78 percent of Americans worry the vaccination approval process is being driven more by politics than science.

Whom do consumers trust for information? Their doctors. Physicians must be prepared to answer questions about how they have evaluated a vaccine, why they believe it to be safe and effective, and whether they have chosen to take it themselves.

As providers prepare to deliver millions of vaccine doses once one is approved and available, leveraging the trust inherent in physician-patient relationships will be essential, especially among vaccine-hesitant populations.

 

 

 

 

Major coronavirus vaccine trial is paused to investigate unexplained illness

https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/09/09/astrazeneca-covid-vaccine-safety-trial/?utm_campaign=wp_main&utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&fbclid=IwAR2gomNZclHdUubRHKRqa3u5a6b06VEM2-wwNYFHitq9pK8_5ya8XflTFI0

The halt shows that safety protections are working, experts say

A major coronavirus vaccine trial is on hold as an independent committee investigates whether a case of spinal inflammation in a single British participant is linked to the vaccine — a step that several experts said is a sign of the protections in place to ensure the safety of products ultimately used in millions of healthy people.

The hold on human testing of the vaccine candidate being developed by the pharmaceutical company AstraZeneca and the University of Oxford was confirmed by the company in a statement Tuesday evening, calling it a “routine action.”

“The announcement yesterday about the AstraZeneca vaccine is a concrete example of how even a single case of an unexpected illness is sufficient to require a clinical hold for the trial in multiple counties,” said Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, at a Senate hearing.

The announcement comes as scientists and a growing numbers of Americans express concern about the politicization of the vaccine approval process during a presidential election campaign. President Trump has made approval of a coronavirus vaccine a cornerstone of his campaign and repeatedly said it could be greenlighted before the Nov. 3 election.

But Collins and other scientists pointed to AstraZeneca’s decision as evidence that scientists, rather than politicians, are running the process. The experts said that it was hard to estimate how long the investigation would take, but that the pause was a good sign and not unexpected in trials of this size and scale, where many thousands of people are closely followed.

Collins testified that while minimal information is available about the adverse event, he has heard it described as transverse myelitis, rare inflammation of the spinal cord that has been associated with vaccinations, but has also been documented in a few cases of covid-19 and can occur in immune system disorders such as multiple sclerosis.

A study in the journal Lupus reported that between 1970 and 2009, there were 37 cases of transverse myelitis associated with various vaccines.

“The event is being investigated by an independent committee, and it is too early to conclude the specific diagnosis,” said AstraZeneca spokesman Brendan McEvoy.

Serious adverse events are closely monitored in clinical trials to determine whether they are likely to be linked to the drug or vaccine being administered. In trials with many thousands of people, sicknesses are likely to occur, and they may have no connection to the drug or vaccine being tested.

Collins also said he was not worried that the delay or even possible elimination of the AstraZeneca vaccine candidate would limit the eventual availability of vaccines to Americans.

“The reason we’re investing not in one, but in six different vaccines is because of the expectation that they won’t all work,” he told members of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee.

“To have a clinical hold as has been placed on AstraZeneca as of yesterday because of a single serious adverse effect is not at all unprecedented,” Collins said.

He said that if after a thorough investigation, the adverse reaction is traced back to the vaccine candidate, then all the doses of that vaccine being manufactured would be thrown away. The United States has committed up to $1.2 billion to AstraZeneca to support development of the vaccine and to purchase 300 million doses.

A hold on a trial is not common, but is also not cause for alarm — it is a sign the system in place to protect participants is working, said Susan Ellenberg, a biostatistician at the University of Pennsylvania who has served on the independent data safety monitoring boards that investigate such incidents.

“The process is when something unusual develops, they might want to put a hold on things — and given the incredible attention that’s being given to these vaccines, and the recognition of how fast we’re trying to go, I think people are bending over backwards to show safety is really the top priority,” Ellenberg said.

This is the second pause for the trial. An information sheet for study participants from July noted that the trial had been put on hold after a participant developed neurological symptoms, but those were determined to be caused by an “unrelated neurological illness.”

“I think the company is being prudent to stop and look and to determine whether this severe adverse event, whatever it is, was a coincidence that followed vaccination, or was caused by the vaccine,” said Paul Offit, director of the Vaccine Education Center at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. “The vaccine is designed to prevent covid-19, not everything else” that adults might develop.

The pause came a day after the leaders of nine drug companies signed a highly unusual pledge that they would be guided by science and prioritize safety in their effort to develop a coronavirus vaccine, amid worries that political pressure could lead to an unsafe or ineffective vaccine to be used in millions of healthy people.

“This temporary pause is living proof that we follow those principles while a single event at one of our trial sites is assessed by a committee of independent experts,” Pascal Soriot, the AstraZeneca chief executive, said in a statement. “We will be guided by this committee as to when the trials could restart, so that we can continue our work at the earliest opportunity to provide this vaccine broadly, equitably and at no profit during this pandemic.”

“Even if it turns out this is causally related to the vaccine, that doesn’t automatically mean this is something you might not carry on,” said Naor Bar-Zeev, deputy director of the International Vaccine Access Center at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “The benefit versus risk needs to be evaluated with the likelihood of each of these things and is clearly context dependent. If there was no covid in the world, you’d not want to take a vaccine.”

But Collins underscored at the hearing that the safety review and pause was just another reason that the United States was spreading its bets so widely, investing in six different vaccines. The United Kingdom has also made purchasing agreements for six vaccines in the final stages of human testing.

At a news conference at 10 Downing Street on Wednesday, United Kingdom chief scientific adviser Patrick Vallance said it was not unusual for a large Phase 3 trial test of effectiveness and safety of vaccines to be paused.

This is precisely why a Phase 3 trial is undertaken, he said.

“A pause is obviously not good,” Vallance said. “But it is sensible to look closely to see what is going on.”

 

 

 

 

What makes a Bad Vaccine?

A Covid-19 vaccine, amazingly, is close. Why am I so worried?

A mere six months after identifying the SARS-CoV-2 virus as the cause of Covid-19, scientists are on the precipice of a having a vaccine to fight it. Moderna and the National Institutes of Health recently announced the start of a Phase 3 clinical trial, joining several others in a constructive rivalry that could save millions of lives.

It’s a truly impressive a feat and a testament to the power of basic and applied medical sciences. Under normal circumstances, vaccine approvals are measured in decades. Milestones that once took months or years have been achieved in days or weeks. If these efforts are successful, the Covid-19 vaccine could take a place alongside the Apollo missions as one of history’s greatest scientific achievements.

I’m optimistic. And yet, as someone who studies drug development, I want to temper expectations with a dose of realism and perhaps a bit of angst. Behind the proud declarations, many science and medical professionals have been whispering concerns. These whispers have escalated into a murmur. It’s time to cry them loudly:

Hey, Food and Drug Administration: Don’t be rash! Premature approval of a sub-standard Covid-19 vaccine could have dire implications, and not just for this pandemic. It could harm public health for years, if not generations, to come.

Unfortunately, elements now in place make such a disastrous outcome not only possible but in fact quite likely. Specifically, the FDA and its staff of chronically overworked and underappreciated regulators will face enormous public and political pressure to approve a vaccine. Whether or not one worries about an “October surprise” aimed at the upcoming election, regulators will be pressed hard. Some will stand firm. Some may resign in protest. But others could break and allow a bad vaccine to be released.

What makes a “bad vaccine”? Insufficient protection against the disease it is designed for, unwanted side effects, or some combination of the two. If an approved Covid-19 vaccine turns out to be ineffective, this could unintentionally promote wider spread of the disease by individuals who presume they were protected from it. Likewise, a negative experience with one vaccine might discourage the use of other vaccines that are far more safe and effective, whether they are for Covid-19 or other vaccine-preventable diseases.

Some things take time. Under normal circumstances, ensuring that a vaccine’s effects are safe and durable requires years of study and monitoring. And there is some evidence that natural immune responses to SARS-CoV-2 infection could be transient, making sustained investigation all the more necessary. A merely short-term effect could encourage vaccinated individuals to resume risky behaviors, which would all but guarantee that the epidemic endures. And if unintended side effects turn out to include, for instance, chronic inflammatory or autoimmune disease, a bad vaccine could impart lifelong damage.

But wait, there’s worse! A bad Covid-19 vaccine could further undermine confidence in the many safe, reliable vaccines already in our public health arsenal. Vaccine skepticism and anti-science bias, propagated by B-list celebrities and Russian troll farms, have been gaining strength all year. Combined with disappointing Covid-19 outcomes, such malign forces could facilitate the reemergence of once-vanquished foes — polio, measles, mumps, rubella, diphtheria, whooping cough, and tetanus — that once killed multitudes of children each year.

These are enormous risks. Placing all of our bets on a small set of untried vaccine technologies would be gobsmackingly foolish. Yet this is exactly what we are now doing. Most of the high-profile names capturing headlines are pursuing comparatively minor variations on a theme of genetic vaccines (those delivered via DNA or RNA). If one approach happens to work, the odds are higher the others will work as well. Disappointing results from one candidate, though, might presage failure across the board.

Rather than investing in a balanced portfolio of vaccines with different approaches — not to mention different therapies, devices, and diagnostics for treating Covid-19 — too many observers, too many companies, and too many governmental officials seem to be narrowly focused on hopes for a “savior” vaccine. Were that savior to fail, our national morale, already low, could plummet even further.

Don’t get me wrong. I, along with millions of Americans, want a Covid-19 vaccine. But we deserve one that’s been proven to be safe and effective.

It’s not too late to take a deep breath and devise a strategy to balance short- and long-term goals, including vaccination, improved diagnostics, and existing and novel treatments. We must support the FDA and hope that its scientists and physicians retain the strength and conviction to resist approving a substandard vaccine.

For encouragement, we should look to Frances Oldham Kelsey, a veritable patron saint of the FDA. In 1960, during her first month working for the agency, Kelsey was asked to approve a sedative called Kevadon, which had the potential to generate billions in revenue. Despite enormous pressure, Kelsey spotted a risk for toxicity and dug in her heels. She refused to rubber stamp the approval. Her actions saved the lives of countless babies. Kevadon, better known as thalidomide, proved to be one of the most dangerous and disfiguring drugs in history.

Kelsey passed away in 2015 at the age of 101. We must pray that her spirit inspires a new generation of FDA leaders with the courage to say, “No.”

 

 

 

 

 

Convalescent Plasma: The Unanswered Questions

https://www.medpagetoday.com/infectiousdisease/covid19/88264?xid=fb_o&trw=no&fbclid=IwAR0F6xiRAQ7ngBz4pNozJ2VqWm0-UJqGdlQojfOeyXbPJjbAeYtGL8jbAiw

“The data don’t show anything useful”

Problems with the government’s rationale for authorizing use of convalescent plasma in COVID-19 patients go far beyond the dustup over the purported 35% survival benefit cited by top officials on Sunday, numerous researchers say.

That figure quickly came under fire, leading to an apology from Commissioner Stephen Hahn, MD — but that’s not the only criticism leveled at the FDA’s analysis of the available data.

Much of it came from the Mayo Clinic and FDA expanded access program (EAP), at this point published only as a preprint manuscript. Although a large number of patients were included, the study was observational only, with no untreated control group. That makes the findings merely hypothesis-generating, and can’t offer any firm conclusions.

That’s fine for issuing an emergency use authorization (EUA), but not so much for making claims about survival benefit, independent researchers said.

“It’s not even a question of overstating,” Adam Gaffney, MD, MPH, a critical care doctor and health policy researcher at Harvard Medical School, told MedPage Today. “You can’t state much at all when you don’t have a randomized controlled trial.”

“People have made a big deal of Hahn referring to relative versus absolute risk reduction, but I think that’s less of a big deal,” Gaffney said. “The biggest problem is that the data they are citing … is not randomized. That’s the source of all the problems.”

Hahn took heat for saying that a “35% improvement in survival is a pretty substantial clinical benefit” further explaining that of “100 people who are sick with COVID-19, 35 would have been saved because of the administration of plasma.”

Critics rapidly took to Twitter, stating that the interpretation was incorrect. Hahn was referring to relative risk reduction, not absolute risk reduction. Thus, calculating the number of lives saved — which isn’t something experts recommend doing based on observational data in the first place — would have translated to somewhere more in the ballpark of 5 out of 100.

Moreover, the “risk reduction” came from a comparison of patients treated with high-titer plasma versus those receiving lower-titer preparations. The study offered no basis for concluding how many patients may have been “saved” relative to standard care.

And the 35% reduction in that analysis was for 7-day mortality; the relative reduction at 30 days was only 23%.

Hahn’s recital of the 35% figure “was just PART of the error,” tweeted Vinay Prasad, MD, MPH, of the University of California San Francisco. “The entire comparison is flawed. It is not a suitable control. The data don’t show anything useful.”

“The much broader problem here is the lack of commitment to performing large, national randomized controlled trials,” Gaffney said. “We could have done it for convalescent plasma. Instead, we did the EAP. I understand why people wanted it, but now we don’t know [if convalescent plasma works]. We have a question mark instead of a period.”

Undermining Trust in FDA?

Critics have charged that serious mistakes like Hahn’s misstatement could undermine FDA’s credibility, especially as it faces challenging decisions about potentially approving a vaccine this fall.

“This is playing out in the context of a hyper-politicized moment,” Gaffney said. “It behooves everyone to be extremely cautious in speaking about these things to avoid the appearance of politicization.”

On CBS This Morning on Tuesday, Hahn addressed concerns about politicization by offering reassurance to the “American people that this decision was made based upon sound science and data.”

In response to questions about the timing of the EUA announcement — it came just a day after President Donald Trump tweeted allegations that the “deep state” was holding back access to COVID-19 treatments with Hahn’s Twitter handle cited, and a day before the Republican National Convention got underway — Hahn said the agency had been working on the application for 3 or 4 weeks and was waiting on additional validation data, which were received at the end of last week and over the weekend.

“We’re going to continue to get data and as we’ve done with any other authorization, we will update that decision as new data come,” Hahn said on the news program. His agency initially issued an EUA for hydroxychloroquine, for instance, but later revoked it when the negative randomized trial data became available.

Lack of Access to FDA’s Data Review

Whether the public will ever see the full convalescent plasma data underlying the EUA is another matter. The “Clinical Memorandum” issued as the evidence behind the FDA’s decision glossed over the statistical analysis conducted by the agency; in particular, it made no mention of the 35% relative reduction in deaths.

Another problem with that is the 35% figure’s source isn’t fully clear. Although the EAP preprint manuscript is the most obvious source, Gaffney noted that HHS Secretary Alex Azar said it referred to a subgroup of patients under age 80 who were not on a ventilator. That is not found in the publicly available data. He also pointed to a tweet by FDA spokesperson Emily Miller that contains an agency slide showing a 37% reduction in mortality for non-intubated patients age 80 or under treated within 72 hours who got high-titer convalescent plasma, compared with low-titer product. Neither of those figures is reflected in the EAP manuscript.

The FDA did not return a request by MedPage Today for the full summary of data reviewed by FDA and any independent statistical analysis done by the agency.

Shmuel Shoham, MD, of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, said during a press briefing organized by the Infectious Diseases Society of America that “enormous amounts of data have been generated” from the EAP, in which more than 70,000 patients have been treated.

“Some data have been reported in articles and at meetings, but that’s only part of what the FDA — this is their program — has access to,” he said. “The stuff in the public domain is only a fraction of the data they have collected.”

Shoham is on the scientific advisory board of the EAP and is involved in two convalescent plasma clinical trials at Johns Hopkins.

Gaffney said Mayo researchers and FDA reviewers have noted that physicians were blinded to the dose of antibody given in plasma infusions, which he described as a “pseudo-randomization effect. We could use that to make more causal inferences about the effectiveness of antibody titers.”

However, he said there were some significant differences between those who received high-titer versus low-titer antibody, including differences in P-to-F ratio (a measure of inhaled oxygen to blood oxygen) and in those with five or more severe risk factors, suggesting the low-titer group was sicker to begin with than the high-titer group.

Also, patients in the EAP received a variety of other treatments: about half got steroids and 40% were given remdesivir.

“This is why we do randomized controlled trials,” Gaffney said. “Without them it’s very difficult to ensure that the effect you see is the result of the drug, and not the result of patient characteristics.”

Is an Answer Forthcoming?

Several randomized controlled trials of convalescent plasma are underway in the U.S., but the big concern is that wider access to convalescent plasma will limit enrollment. Will clinicians recommend that their patients enroll in a trial in which they might receive placebo? Will patients agree?

For the Hopkins studies, the prevention trial has enrolled 25 people out of a goal of 500, and its outpatient trial has enrolled 50 people of its 600-patient goal.

Liise-anne Pirofski, MD, of Montefiore Medical Center in New York, started a study at the end of April, looking to enroll 300 people. She said the team enrolled the first 150 people quickly, but “then the pandemic began to wane in New York.” With subsequent funding from the NIH, the trial has managed to enroll 190 patients, and has now expanded to four additional sites: New York University, Yale, the University of Miami, and the University of Texas Houston.

Clifton Callaway, MD, PhD, of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and lead investigator on the C3PO trial looking at outpatient convalescent plasma, said he hopes the EUA doesn’t discourage participation.

“To the contrary, I believe it should reassure persons considering participation that the FDA feels that convalescent plasma is safe and potentially useful and that the FDA specifically comments: ‘Current data suggest the largest clinical benefit is associated with high-titer units of CCP administered early in the course of disease.’ Giving high-titer convalescent plasma earlier (before you are sick enough to be in the hospital) is exactly what C3PO is testing.”

In addition to determining whether earlier or prophylactic treatment works, Shoham said other unanswered questions include identifying whether other components in plasma are useful therapies and whether low-titer plasma can work at all.

“What everyone agrees on is that the gaps in knowledge that exist can best be addressed by high-quality randomized controlled trials,” he said.

Pirofski said the science and data should be the focus, “rather than the decision and what drove the decision…. I don’t think anyone knows what drove that decision other than the people in that room. Hopefully they know.”