On Tuesday, The New York Times editorial board excoriated President Donald Trump’s FDA commissioner, Stephen Hahn, for the “fuzzy math” he used to justify an emergency authorization for an unproven convalescent plasma treatment for coronavirus.
Hahn, the board noted, was forced to apologize for his false claim that data showed the treatment could save 35 out of 100 infected people.
“The survival benefit Dr. Hahn initially mentioned applies only to a narrow subset of patients: Those younger than 80 years old who were hospitalized but not on ventilators and who received plasma with high levels of antibodies within three days of diagnosis were 35 percent less likely to die than those who received plasma with low levels of antibodies,” wrote the board. “If the former group of patients were compared instead to the wider population, the benefit would shrink considerably. Dr. Hahn knows this — or at least he ought to.”
“Dr. Hahn could have stood by leaders from the National Institutes of Health who advised hitting pause on the use of convalescent plasma until more data was available. Or he could have defended F.D.A. scientists who advised moving forward even though data was limited,” wrote the board. “Instead, he followed his boss’s lead, propping up victorious statements with fuzzy numbers.”
Trump has repeatedly gone against medical advice, including his support for hydroxychloroquine as a COVID-19 cure, which has been broadly discredited. His FDA revoked emergency use authorization for this treatment in early summer, and cautions against its use due to potential heart damage.
“In a world where disinfectant therapy is discussed with a straight face, the difference between relative and absolute may indeed seem small,” wrote the board. “But even small compromises with the truth can have big consequences for public trust, and for the course of global pandemics. It’s worrisome that a doctor in charge of one of the nation’s top regulatory agencies — who will play a leading role in the coming decisions about which vaccines are safe and effective enough to be injected into Americans’ bodies — doesn’t seem to realize that.”
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