Covid-19: Perils Of Haste In Scientific Decision-Making Process

Multifaceted threats posed by Coronavirus to the humanity, are getting increasingly complex, every day. Currently, Covid-19 cases in India are ‘the highest that any country has ever recorded on a single day since the start of the outbreak.’ Alongside, the hopes of billions of people – for its predictable and dependable remedies are also soaring sky high. But, despite full throttle global endeavor of scientists, the world continues waiting for scientific-evidence-based, well-proven, safe, and effective Covid-19 drugs, vaccines and other treatments.

It is expected, each of these cures and antidotes should be duly authorized by drug regulators, according to global norms – without any outside non-scientific interference – not even from the very top. Nevertheless, the reality is, as on date, besides some ‘emergency use authorizations’, all scientific pursuits in this area are Works in Progress (WIP) – some are with great potential, though.

The catastrophic impact of Covid-19 pandemic is all pervasive. So is the competition between media publications to attract maximum eyeballs, with details on many aspects of the disease and related scientific development. These include reports on intense, non-scientific pressure on scientists and regulators to make drugs, vaccines or other Covid-19 treatments immediately available for use. In this article, I shall dwell on the perils of haste in the scientific decision-making processes, while combating Covid-19.

A quick research outcome is important – based on ‘rational’ – but not ‘rash’ decisions: 

In pursuit of a quick disease treatment outcome, a rational and ethical approach in any scientific discovery process, is non-negotiable. It has always been so – while dealing with many different health crises, and should remain that way for Covid-19, as well. In my view, for achieving a prompt and desirable treatment outcome – a quick, but rational decision should always be favored – over highly influenced, contentious, non-scientific and rash decisions.

Many wise men believe, a quick decision is one, made quickly supported by irrefutable inputs of an accepted quality and scale. Whereas, a rash decision is one, made with limited, questionable or even no inputs – just based on gut feel, as it were. This broad concept is applicable to Covid-19 drugs, vaccines and other treatments, including -plasma therapy.

In the space of Covid-19 pandemic, there are several such examples, starting from hydroxychloroquine to the most recent plasma therapy – both in India, and also beyond its shores. Without being judgmental, this article will try to join some critical dots, for the readers draw their own conclusions on this issue. Let me start with two examples of this drug regulatory quagmire – the very first, and the most recent ones.

Perils of haste in the Hydroxychloroquine saga:

As I wrote in this blog that the US President Donald Trump, on March 21, 2020,  proclaimed Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine as potential game changers against Covid-19 global pandemic, despite doubts from the US-FDA. Interestingly, on March 28, 2020, the US drug regulator granted the emergency use authorization of these two drugs for treating Covid-19. However, it was subsequently revoked on June 15, 2020. The agency justified this action by saying:

“Based on its ongoing analysis of the EUA and emerging scientific data, the FDA determined that chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine are unlikely to be effective in treating COVID-19 for the authorized uses in the EUA. Additionally, in light of ongoing serious cardiac adverse events and other potential serious side effects, the known and potential benefits of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine no longer outweigh the known and potential risks for the authorized use.”

The World Health Organization (W.H.O) also announced: “Studies show Hydroxychloroquine does not have clinical benefits in treating COVID-19.” However, as published by JAMA on May 28, 2020,following President Trump’s naming these drugs at a press conference, Hydroxychloroquine prescriptions shot up by over 200 percent, over the previous year. Nonetheless, the prescriptions returned to normal as news highlighting the lack of enough evidence to support its use started spreading, across the globe.

Soon, India followed the same… a strange coincidence?

As stated above, on March 21, 2020, the US President Trump proclaimed Chloroquine and Hydroxychloroquine as potential game changers against Covid-19 global pandemic, despite doubts from the US-FDA. Curiously, on March 23, 2020, Indian media also reported:

‘Amid rising Coronavirus cases in the country, the national task force for COVID-19 constituted by Indian Council for Medical Research (ICMR) has recommended hydroxy-chloroquine as a preventive medication for high-risk population. According to the advisory, it should be given to high risk population — asymptomatic healthcare workers involved in the care of suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 and asymptomatic household contacts of laboratory confirmed cases.’

The above protocol, recommended by the National Task Force, has been approved by the Drug Controller General of India (DGCI) for restricted use in emergency situations. This seems to have happened even before the US-FDA granted similar authorization. Intriguingly, US-FDA subsequently revoked it on June 15, 2020, for lack of enough scientific evidence, unlike the Indian drug regulator.

Another report of April 09, 2020 summed it up well. It wrote, the hype of Hydroxychloroquine – pushed by the US President Trump as a COVID-19 treatment, has now been joined by many other countries, despite inconclusive medical evidence on the efficacy and safety of the drug. Is this just a strange coincidence?

Be that as it may, India’s decision on the emergency use of Hydroxychloroquine had its rub-off financial impact in the country, in terms of increase in its export demand, which may not be an intended one, though.

Its rub-off financial impact in India:

As the world’s largest manufacturers of Hydroxychloroquine are located in India, many of these companies reaped a rich harvest in the April-June quarter, mostly, based on media reports on its use in treating Covid-19. For example, Ipca Laboratories Ltd, reportedly, garnered ₹259 Crore in additional sales, with consolidated net profit for the quarter soar threefold to ₹454 Crore, from the drug in that period.

Notably, Ipca also acknowledged, ‘HCQ sales were a one-time boost for the company. With the hype waning, after various clinical trials showed the drug did not provide any significant benefit, the company now expects sales to ease to earlier levels,’ as the report goes. Let me now move over to the most recent example.

Perils of haste in the plasma therapy saga:

Since, the third week of this month, a series of incidents related to plasma therapy highlighted the ongoing perils of haste in the scientific decision-making process. These were generally prompted by powerful non-scientific external influences, as reported below:

  • On August 23, 2020, the US President announced that the US-FDA has granted emergency approval of blood plasma from recovered Coronavirus patients as a treatment for those battling the disease. President Trump called the development “a historic breakthrough.”
  • According to Reuters, the US-FDA had authorized its use after President Donald Trump blamed the drug agency for impeding the rollout of vaccines and therapeutics for political reasons.
  • The very next day of President Trump’s announcement, on August 24, 2020, the World Health Organization advised caution about endorsing the use of recovered COVID-19 patients’ plasma to treat those who are ill, saying evidence it works remains “low quality.”
  • American scientists, including researchers at the Mayo Clinic also challenged a key statistic cited by U.S. officials as grounds for emergency approval of the treatment.
  • On August 25, 2020, US-FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn, publicly apologized ‘for overstating the benefits of plasma for treating Covid-19 patients.’ 
  • “The US-FDA’s emergency use authorization for plasma for Covid-19 looks questionable. If this presages an early vaccine nod, we should be very afraid,” reported another article.

Similar controversy was also witnessed in India. Just days after the Drug Controller General of India (DCGI) gave its go-ahead to a proposal of ICMR for the clinical trial of convalescent plasma therapy in COVID-19 patients, the Ministry of Health said, ‘there is not enough evidence to claim plasma therapy can be used for treatment of COVID-19. Interestingly, several states, such as, Delhi, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Uttar Pradesh, have already started clinical trials for plasma-based treatment. Meanwhile, media reports, such as, ‘India sees black market boom for plasma from recovered Covid-19 patients,’ started pouring in.

Conclusion:

As recorded in the morning of August 30, 2020, total Coronavirus cases in India have reached a staggering figure of 3,542,733 with 63,657 deaths, despite all measures taken by the country. No signs of flattening of the curve are visible, just yet. In this situation, many experts believe, the way prescriptions are written for Covid-19 patients, based on anything but robust considerations, needs to be re-looked. The headline of an article, written by Richard L. Kravitz, Professor of Health Policy and Internal Medicine, University of California, Davis on July 09, 2020, vindicates this point. It said:‘When Trump pushed Hydroxychloroquine to treat COVID-19, hundreds of thousands of prescriptions followed, despite little evidence that it worked.’

Another interesting article, tried to ferret out the truth behind such haste. It voiced, ‘the truth is that researchers, academic institutions, medical journals and the media all face powerful incentives to portray the latest research findings as more earthshaking than they actually are’. The authors spotlighted, under normal circumstances, numerous mechanisms exist to blunt some of the worst over-hyping and many sources of medical information do their best to be accurate in what they report.

It is possible that in the midst of a pandemic, the urgency of the moment may overwhelm these good intentions. The above paper also cautioned, ‘Bad science can be spread far and wide by normally credible sources.” However, the bottom-line is, the scientific research community, under no circumstances, be made to comply with the thoughts and beliefs of non-scientific, but powerful decision makers. It happened in the oldest democracy in the world, as it also happened in the largest democracy on the planet earth.

The above two instances are just illustrations to highlight an important point – without becoming judgmental. The discussion spotlights the perils of haste in the scientific decision-making processes, while combating Covid-19. As many experts believe, it could be counterproductive for non-scientific power sources to influence the robust medical value creators for a quick remedy. Mainly because, patients will continue to be at the receiving end for the net outcome, of such unproven, and scientifically fragile hypes.

By: Tapan J. Ray  

Disclaimer: The views/opinions expressed in this article are entirely my own, written in my individual and personal capacity. I do not represent any other person or organization for this opinion.

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