Thursday, February 14, 2008

Botox, Friday Afternoon Press Calls and the Nissen Effect

Blaming the media will never go out of fashion, at least not when it comes to drug safety scares.

Here is Schering-Plough EVP Carrie Cox, summarizing the battle to rebuild Vytorin after the ENHANCE debacle during its earnings call February 12: "Physicians ... understand that the furor around ENHANCE is largely a media driven event."

And GlaxoSmithKline’s recap of the Avandia meltdown of 2007: it resulted from a “distortion of the media” about the risk profile seen with the Type 2 diabetes drug, outgoing CEO JP Garnier said February 7.

There is no question that front-page headlines and national news broadcasts can do immediate and lasting damage to even the most well-established brands, damage that may go far beyond any appropriate medical response to new data.

But that only begs the question: what prompts some safety scares (or, in the case of ENHANCE, a failed efficacy trial) to create a media feeding frenzy, while others seem to pass with barely a ripple?

One answer, to borrow a phrase from religious themed bumper stickers, could be WWSNS: What Will Steve Nissen Say? There certainly does seem to be a strong correlation between the Cleveland Clinic cardiologist’s reaction to new data and the amount of play it gets in the media.

Wall Street seems to believe in the Nissen effect. In a February 11 note, Wachovia’s Larry Biegelsen argued that investors over-reacted to an “early communication” about a potential safety issue involving Allergan’s Botox. The issue, announced by FDA February 8, involved serious adverse events primarily associated with off-label use of Botox in children with cerebral palsy. Investors worried that a safety scare could significantly impact Botox widespread cosmetic use.

Not to worry, says Biegelsen. An “ENHANCE-like impact” on Botox use is “unlikely in our view.” Why? Well, for one thing, “Dr. Steve Nissen has not spoken out against Botox,” the way he did against Vytorin.

Talk about a case where silence is golden.

Biegelsen, of course, knows it isn’t quite as simple as that. Nissen’s silence is one of four factors the Wachovia analyst sees as reassuring differences between the Botox safety issues and the ENHANCE fallout. Only one is under the control of the sponsor: “There does not appear to have been any delay in the reporting of the serious adverse events.”

The other three involve reactions by external parties who have no formal regulatory role: (1) Nissen’s silence; (2) “Congress has not started an investigation into the handling of the Botox data”; and (3) The media coverage of Botox is more benign than the coverage of the ENHANCE data.

How so? “We couldn’t find a story in the print version of the New York Times on Saturday, whereas ENHANCE was front page news the day after the results were released.”

Of course, that last point is not entirely good fortune for Allergan. As we pointed out, FDA issued the “early communication” about Botox on Friday afternoon—part of what is becoming a pattern at the agency. (A safety update on Pfizer’s emerging blockbuster Chantix came out the week before Botox, and FDA’s first response to ENHANCE came the week before that.)

It so happens that Friday afternoon is the time least likely to generate significant news coverage. FDA swears there is no deliberate strategy to bury drug safety events. (At least, they assured Pharmalot of that—you can read more here.)

It certainly is plausible that FDA didn’t get all its ducks in a row to issue the early communications until Friday afternoon. We’ve talked to media savvy FDAers over the years (both in the press office and elsewhere) who routinely lament the review divisions’ habit of issuing approval letters at or after the close of business, often on Fridays, thereby all but assuring that even the most important new drug approvals would not be covered in the national news broadcasts, and sometimes even receive scant notice in newspapers.

The fact is that if FDA is not taking the news cycle into account when making safety announcements, it should be. Overblown safety scares do not serve the public health, so FDA certainly could justify Friday afternoon announcements as a way to better ensure that important new information gets into the public sphere in a more measured fashion.

On the other hand, the news media is the best way to amplify an urgent safety message. If that is the goal, the agency is better served by getting the news out early in the day and early in the week whenever possible.

In fact, that’s what FDA did on Monday February 11, when it announced that Baxter is suspending production of heparin due to severe adverse events--an announcement with urgent public health implications.

As far as we know, Dr. Nissen didn't weigh in on that one...

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