With hardly a word in the mainstream press, the FDA has gutted the rules restraining drug companies from exploiting clinical trial subjects in developing countries.
Now that 80 percent of clinical trials fail to recruit sufficient numbers of test subjects on deadline, drug companies increasingly export their trials to developing countries, where sick, undertreated patients abound. It’s faster, it’s cheaper and it’s easier to conduct the placebo-controlled trials that companies and the FDA prefer. There is precious little oversight of these trials. Unlike for domestic trials, the FDA does not require advance notice before drug companies take their trials outside US borders. And with 90 percent of trials failing to gain FDA approval, a massive number of trials are conducted, fail and then vanish with no agency review at all–and little public record, if any.
Until now, the FDA’s sole requirement for these overseas trials is that they adhere to the Declaration of Helsinki (or local rules, on the off chance that they are more stringent). Signed by the United States and thirty-four other countries in 1975, the Declaration of Helsinki consists of several dozen pithy principles to govern ethical research on humans, and is widely considered the gold standard in research ethics. Crafted and updated by the World Medical Association, a group representing dozens of national physicians’ organizations from around the globe, the Declaration of Helsinki (DOH) urges voluntary informed consent, the use of independent committees to review and oversee trials, that investigators prioritise their subjects’ well-being, that research subjects be assured access to the best health interventions identified in trials and that their societies enjoy a "reasonable likelihood" of benefiting from the results of trials.
It’s not a perfect document. It’s very short. It’s a little vague. The FDA does not bother to enforce it. Even when they know of infractions–such as in Pfizer’s trial of the antibiotic Trovan in Nigeria, which not only failed to procure informed consent but didn’t even have an oversight committee in place at the time of the trial–the FDA has done nothing and approved the drug anyway. We know of that particular trial’s violations only because the Washington Post exposed them several years later. In researching a book I wrote on clinical trials in developing countries, I similarly found many examples of trials clearly in violation of Helsinki provisions that were nevertheless reviewed and approved by the FDA.
The FDA has been agitating against the DOH since the late 1990s, when the World Medical Association strengthened the document’s restrictions on placebo-controlled trials, which an unlikely alliance of industry, public health and academic researchers angrily challenged. The strengthened DOH, the FDA’s medical director Robert Temple railed, "doesn’t look like a group of suggestions that are worth discussing." Under pressure from the agency and drug companies, the World Medical Association diluted the objectionable language about placebo trials–increasing the document’s vagueness–but by then the FDA was on the warpath. Just as President Bush opted out of international treaties on climate change and anti-ballistic missiles, in 2001 the FDA bucked two decades of its own precedents and refused to adopt updated versions of the internationally sanctioned Declaration of Helsinki. That done, in 2004, the agency proposed dumping the DOH from its codes altogether, and on April 28 announced it would indeed be summarily excised starting in October.