By Margaret Hamburg, M.D.
This week marks the six-month anniversary of President Obama signing an Executive Order to help FDA in our ongoing efforts to prevent and resolve prescription drug shortages. At FDA, we saw the Executive Order as an important step in bringing awareness to this critical public health issue and signaling the necessary tools and resources, such as early notification and additional staff, FDA must have to help address this problem. Following the Executive Order, we sent out letters to drug manufacturers asking them to voluntarily report to FDA if they saw the emerging potential for a drug shortage.
Six months later, I am both amazed and delighted to see the progress that’s been made. Early notification to FDA of potential disruptions in drug supply has made a huge difference in our efforts – and the numbers really tell the story. Since reaching out to industry, there has been a six-fold increase in early notifications from manufacturers. Also in that six month timeframe, we have been able to prevent 128 drug shortages, and we’re seeing fewer numbers of shortages occur – 42 new drugs in shortage reported in 2012, compared to 90 new shortages at this time last year. This data is a testament to how FDA exercises flexibility and discretion in much of our work on drug shortages and the importance of strong collaboration and constant communication with industry, health professionals, and patients.
But these are simply statistics. Consider instead the impact of our work on patients, who need particular drugs to treat life-threatening diseases. For instance, supplies of methotrexate, a cancer drug used to treat childhood leukemia and osteosarcoma, are currently meeting all demand, and we do not expect any further supply issues. Also, to address the shortage of Doxil (liposomal doxorubicin), a drug used for ovarian cancer and other cancer regimens, FDA exercised enforcement discretion for the importation of Lipodox, another brand of liposomal doxorubicin, from India, meeting patient needs until Doxil is available again.
While many shortages of cancer drugs are resolving, we are still working hard to address others. Leucovorin injection, a cancer drug that is used along with methotrexate for children with a serious form of leukemia, has been in short supply for some time. We are working with the manufacturer, Teva Pharmaceuticals, to produce additional shipments in the coming weeks to help improve supplies. Mustargen (Mechlorethamine HCl) – another cancer drug used in multiple cancer regimens — has also been in shortage. FDA has worked with the manufacturer to resume production of Mustargen, and the company is planning to have product available again by August.
We are equally concerned about other types of drugs in shortage. Anesthesia drugs, such as benzodiazepines and fentanyl injections, have recently been in short supply. Here again, early notification is helping. One manufacturer, Hospira, notified FDA of anticipated delays in supply of the critical anesthesia drug propofol. This advanced notice allowed FDA to work with the other manufacturer of propofol who was able to increase supplies to keep the product available for patients undergoing surgery.
Drug shortages remain a serious, complex problem, and the agency remains extremely concerned about all current and potential drug shortages, not just those that I mentioned. Our efforts require a multifaceted approach involving industry, regulators, payers, and others. And we’re working with Congress on bipartisan legislation to expand early notification of drug supply problems that could cause shortages. All of us have a responsibility to help ensure that patients have reasonable access to the drugs they need. Drug manufacturers in particular have a responsibility to manufacture quality drugs and to have a process to ensure supply continuity of critical drugs.
In a blog I wrote earlier this year, I reminded readers that “the critical issue of drug shortages isn’t about industry; it isn’t about government, or even about the drugs themselves. It is about getting people the treatments they trust, they need, and they rely on.” While that remains as true as ever, I would like to add a different kind of reminder. Today’s six-month check-up demonstrates what government and industry can accomplish when we work together. While there’s no simple solution, we are making progress. And we’ll remain vigilant – doing all we can and using every resource available – to make sure patients have access to the critical medicines they need, when they need them.
Margaret Hamburg, M.D., is Commissioner of the U. S. Food and Drug Administration