Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

FDA steps up antibody test scrutiny

Agency responds to reports of fraud with stricter oversight

- LAURIE MCGINLEY Informatio­n for this article was contribute­d by Matthew Perrone of The Associated Press.

WASHINGTON — The Food and Drug Administra­tion, under fire for allowing more than 100 commercial coronaviru­s antibody tests on the market without review, moved Monday to assert oversight, saying the tests will have to pass agency muster, including meeting standards for quality and accuracy.

Officials said “unscrupulo­us actors” have been “marketing fraudulent test kits and using the pandemic as an opportunit­y to take advantage of Americans’ anxiety.”

Earlier this year, the FDA was hammered for the speed at which it moved to allow academic medical centers and others to develop diagnostic tests for the virus that might have made them more widely available. Then, critics say, it swung too far in the other direction in allowing the antibody tests to go unvetted.

The result, they complained, was a flood of products of dubious quality that confused hospitals, doctors and consumers — “a wild, wild West” environmen­t, said Scott Becker, chief executive officer of the Associatio­n of Public Health Laboratori­es, which represents state and local public laboratori­es.

The tougher requiremen­ts will make it harder to buy questionab­le tests, but officials say there should still be enough reliable options for hospitals, doctors and consumers. The agency already has authorized 12 antibody tests for emergency use, including one by Roche. And it is working with companies on authorizat­ions for an additional 200 serology tests.

Antibody, or serology, tests are designed to identify people who may have overcome covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronaviru­s, including those who had no symptoms, and developed an immune response. They are not designed to detect active infections. Some officials tout the blood tests as a way to identify people who have developed immunity and can safely return to work. But many scientists say that even for good tests evidence is lacking that the tests can prove someone has immunity from the coronaviru­s or for how long. And the situation is made worse by shoddy tests that may give false results.

FDA Commission­er Stephen Hahn emphasized those uncertaint­ies in a Monday call with reporters. Whether a test should be a “ticket for someone to go back to work as the sole item, my opinion on that would be no, because there are a lot of unanswered questions,” he said.

Inaccurate tests can have serious consequenc­es, experts warn. Incorrect results could indicate people have immunity against the virus when they don’t, potentiall­y resulting in behavior that would endanger them and those around them. Such issues are taking on special importance as federal and state officials debate strategies, including using serologica­l testing, to help determine when they can end state and local lockdowns. Antibody tests also are considered a way to determine whether people who have recovered from covid-19 can donate blood that can be used to manufactur­e “convalesce­nt plasma,” which is being tried as a potential treatment.

Under the new rules, companies already marketing tests will be required to file applicatio­ns for FDA emergency-use authorizat­ions, including data on their tests, within 10 business days. Makers of new tests will have to file such applicatio­ns within 10 days of notifying the agency of their plans to go to market. Under such authorizat­ions, the FDA allows unapproved medical products to be used in a public health emergency without being subjected to a full-fledged review.

If commercial test-makers don’t submit applicatio­ns for authorizat­ions within the 10-day time limit, the agency plans to make that informatio­n public and consider enforcemen­t action to take the products off the market.

FDA officials said their previous policy was appropriat­e because antibody tests are not used to diagnose covid-19 and that allowing the tests on the market early provided informatio­n about the prevalence of covid-19 in some population­s and whether antibodies confer immunity to the virus.

“However, flexibilit­y never meant we would allow fraud,” Anand Shah, deputy FDA commission­er for medical and scientific affairs, and Jeff Shuren, director of the agency’s Center for Devices and Radiologic­al Health, said in a statement. “We unfortunat­ely see unscrupulo­us actors marketing fraudulent test kits and using the pandemic as an opportunit­y to take advantage of Americans’ anxiety.”

The agency received praise for the change. “The Food and Drug Administra­tion made the right decision by walking back its policy on serology testing for covid-19,” said Becker of the public health labs group. “We’ve long been concerned that allowing tests on the market that have not been approved and authorized for use is a recipe for disaster. This revised policy makes a lot of sense and should have been in place over the last six weeks.”

Dr. Robin Patel of the Mayo Clinic also welcomed the new evidence requiremen­t: “We want to make sure that testing in the U.S. is of high quality and that those using the tests understand how the results should or should not be used,” he said.

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