Over the past year, the U.S. Senate and The New York Times have been investigating the failure of the nation’s auto safety regulators to protect citizens from cars with occasionally dangerous faulty devices.

But neither august institution has paid attention to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) failure to protect the 170 million Americans who take prescription drugs from adverse reactions that are killing more than 2,400 people every week. Annually, prescription drugs cause over 81 million adverse reactions and result in 2.7 million hospitalizations.

This epidemic of harm from medications makes our prescription drugs the fourth leading cause of death in the United States. Including hospitalizations and deaths from prescribing errors, overdosing, and self-medication, drugs move up to third place.

Below I describe the biases that appear throughout the drug development process, from initial research to FDA review and approval. I conclude with recommendations that would reduce drug development costs and ensure that drugs are only approved if they are safe and significantly more effective than already existing medications.

A Me-Too Business Model

Every drug has risks, so any drug considered for FDA approval should demonstrate clinical advantages that justify those risks. Yet public, independent advisory teams of physicians and pharmacists in several countries found over 90 percent of new drugs approved by the FDA and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) offer few or no advantages over existing drugs to offset their risks of serious harm.

Figure 1 shows the scorecard for 979 newly approved drugs over a 10-year span, based on detailed assessment of clinical benefits and risks by Prescrire, one of the world’s most distinguished, independent review bodies of physicians and pharmacists. (The exhibit focuses on France, a country whose consumer-oriented drug market features an array of products similar to the U.S.)

Figure 1. Few Clinical Advances in a Decade and Hundreds of Other Drugs Approved for Promotion

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Only two were breakthrough advances and fewer than 10 percent offered substantial clinical advantages over existing drugs. Yet approved drugs have a 20 percent risk of producing enough harm for regulators to add a serious warning or have them withdrawn.

Flooding the market with hundreds of minor variations on existing drugs and technically innovative but clinically inconsequential new drugs, appears to be the de facto hidden business model of drug companies. In spite of its primary charge to protect the public, the FDA criteria for approval encourage that business model. The main products of pharmaceutical research are scores of clinically minor drugs that win patent protection for high prices, with only a few clinically important advances like Sovaldi or Gleevec.

This business model works. Despite producing drugs with few clinical advantages and significant health risks, industry sales and profits have grown substantially, at public expense. Companies spend 2-3 times less on research than on marketing to convince physicians to prescribe these minor variations.

Industry figures show the public pays companies about six times R&D costs through high prices on drugs. According to a study by Consumer Reports, high costs to patients lead them to postpone visits to physicians, avoid medical tests, and be able unable to afford other, effective drugs. For society as a whole, a leading health economist found that 80 percent of all new expenditures for drugs was spent on the minor variations, not the major advances.

Institutional Corruption

These startling results reflect studies from the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, where research fellows have investigated “institutional corruption” in the pharmaceutical industry. “Institutional corruption” refers to systemic, legal ways that social institutions such as medical science, the medical profession, and the FDA become compromised by corporate and special-interest funding and influence.

Peer-reviewed studies already demonstrate how pharmaceutical companies manipulate FDA rules to generate evidence that their new drugs are more effective and less harmful than unbiased studies would show. The industry then recruits teams of medical writers, editors, and statisticians to select and repackage trial results into peer-reviewed articles that become accepted as reliable medical knowledge.

Based on his investigations, Marc Rodwin concludes, “Scholarly studies have revealed that drug firms design trials that skew the results and that they distort the evidence by selective reporting or biased interpretation.” This distorted evidence goes into clinical guidelines that become, Lisa Cosgrove and Emily Wheeler note, “essentially marketing tools for drug companies.”

Often Neither Safe Nor Effective

The Center for Drug Evaluation and Research (CDER – pronounced “C-DER”) is the FDA division responsible for determining whether new drugs should be approved. Its funding, however, now largely comes not from taxpayers but from the companies submitting their drugs to CDER for review.

This clear conflict of interest and approving so many new drugs with few clinical benefits serve corporate interests more than public interests, especially given the large risks of serious harm. Direct and indirect costs to society far exceed the cost of funding the FDA as a public, independent review body.

New FDA policies to get more drugs reviewed faster so that they can reach patients sooner result ironically in even more drugs being approved with less evidence that they are either safer or more effective. Faster reviews mean the chance that a drug will generate an FDA warning of serious harm jumps from one in five to one in three.

A systematic study of shortened reviews found that each 10-month reduction in review time produced an 18 percent increase of serious adverse reactions, an 11 percent increase of drug-related hospitalizations, and a 7.2 percent increase of drug-related deaths. Only 72 out of 1,300 CDER staff are charged with investigating drug safety, hard evidence that drug safety is a low priority at the FDA.

A recent review of FDA policies in Health Affairs describes how the FDA creates initiatives that ostensibly demonstrate its concern for safety from faster approvals. But the authors then describe how these initiatives frequently fail or backfire. They report no evidence of reduced harm or improved benefit to patients receiving these expedited drugs.

People imagine the FDA has stringent standards that take months or sometimes years for companies to meet. To a degree, that’s true. But the external independent evidence cited here of few new benefits and substantial risks of harm, calls into question what all this costly, lengthy review process is about.

An anthropologist might conclude it’s an elaborate ritual to make the FDA look like a tough watchdog against unsafe and ineffective drugs while it’s an industry-funded lapdog. Consider the easy ride that the FDA gives cancer drugs, requiring little evidence of improved patient outcomes.

For example, approving that new drugs are better than placebo is a low standard when other effective drugs already exist. Placebo trials are also unethical in these situations because they deny subjects in the control arm the use of an effective drug.

Another FDA standard, to prove that approved drugs are “non-inferior,” or not too much worse than an existing drug, does not allow patients to know if the new drug is better than the one they are taking. Using substitute measures for real benefits to patients makes approved drugs look more effective than they are. Allowing randomized trials to be drawn from biased populations that exclude many people who are likely to take the drug and experience an adverse reaction makes new drugs appear safer than they are.

Why does the FDA allow paymasters to design such trials?

Failure To Warn

The FDA is charged with providing physicians and the public with objective, scientific evidence showing that new drugs are safe and effective. Conveniently for drug companies, it carries out this responsibility narrowly by focusing on the label and not on alerting physicians or the public about biased evidence from those trials in leading medical journals that go into guidelines.

The FDA could alert the profession and public about how end points and other details get switched by industry ghost-writing teams, about unpublished negative results, and about positive results published twice; but it does not. Ghost writing and the ghost management of medical knowledge thrive.

To protect the public from unsafe and ineffective drugs and earn public trust, the FDA and Congress must acknowledge the biases described here that result from pharmaceutical corporations financing the public regulator. They should also require two changes: that new drugs demonstrate patient-based clinical advantages through comparative trials, and that these trials be based on the population that will actually take a drug.

These changes would reduce the flood of minor variations shown in Exhibit 1 and the subsequent billions spent on them.