Many clinical trials on medicines and devices are subject to a 2007 federal law that requires the results to be publicly disclosed on a federally sponsored website within a year after the clinical trial is over. The reason for this requirement is simple: to give doctors and patients full information so that they can make educated decisions about a given treatment. If disappointing clinical trial results remain hidden, while only the most positive results are published and presented in the media, doctors and patients can be wildly misled.
Unfortunately, investigators have found that over half the time, clinical trial sponsors fail to abide by the law, sometimes failing to disclose results even after five years have elapsed. Even more unfortunately, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has never once imposed the legally authorized $10,000-per-day fine for failure to disclose a clinical trial’s results.
Compliance With Reporting Requirements
The most recent investigation was published in the New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM) in March 2015. The authors identified 13,327 clinical trials that were registered on ClinicalTrials.gov, that were completed between 2008 and 2012, and that were subject to the 2007 federal law requiring full disclosure. A mere 13.4 percent of the clinical trials actually disclosed their results within the 12 months required by law, and even after up to four years had elapsed, only 50.5 percent had disclosed the results or asked for a delay (see Figure 2 in the NEJM article).
In a twist that ought to embarrass academics, industry-funded trials were more likely to disclose results than the National Institutes of Health (NIH)-funded trials, which were in turn more likely to disclose results than academic medical centers. The authors found 6,599 clinical trials that were overdue on reporting results.
Increasing FDA Enforcement
If the FDA imposed a $10,000 per day fine on each of these 6,599 outstanding trials, clinical trial sponsors would be responsible for $66 million in payments in the first day alone, adding up to over $24 billion per year.
Although the $24 billion figure shows the size and scope of the problem, the collective fines would never reach that amount because as soon as the FDA actually begins enforcing the law, the researchers who conducted these 6,599 trials would finally be incentivized to report the trials’ results.
Why doesn’t the FDA enforce the law? Some have argued that ClinicalTrials.gov is an antiquated and difficult-to-use website. True enough, but given that 38 percent of trials do disclose their results at some point, it is clearly not impossible to do so. This is not a reason to leave the federal law completely unenforced.
The NEJM article states that one reason for lack of enforcement is that a new rule on clinical trial report is still pending. But the 2007 law itself requires basic reporting of results; the only point of a new rule is to expand the requirements to include other items, such as protocols. The mere fact that a rule may be expanded in the future is no reason to leave the current requirements unenforced. Yet another possibility is that the FDA does not want to get bogged down in lawsuits from companies or universities that have a valid reason for delay. But this argument would suggest, at most, that the FDA ought to levy a fine only when truly merited, not that the FDA should never enforce the fine at all.
My proposal: as an experiment, the FDA should give the 30-day notice required by statute, and then set aside a single week in which it will levy the $10,000-per-day fine on all overdue trials. Assuming that there are around 6,600 overdue trials that don’t come into compliance within the 30-day grace period, the FDA would end up imposing over $460 million in fines within a week’s time. In so doing, it would make a strong statement that disobeying the law and hiding clinical trial results is no longer acceptable.
And within a week, compliance with the law would likely shoot up astronomically, and we would have more complete knowledge about how well or how poorly drugs actually work. In turn, we could all make better decisions about how to improve our nation’s health.