Did Political and Media Bias Stall the Release of Merck's New Covid-19 Drug?

Former HHS officials say they tried to accelerate funding for what became Merck's new "miracle" drug last year, but were blocked. How culture-war stupidity may have cost "tens of thousands" of lives

It seemed like a rare instance of good news in big doses last week when pharmaceutical giant Merck announced that a new drug called molnupiravir had been shown in tests to cut hospitalizations and deaths by half. The simple, easy-to-take pill would give doctors “a whole new, easy-to-use weapon” in the fight against Covid-19, as the AP put it.

Press observers were ecstatic. Headlines ranged from “Merck pill seen as ‘huge advance’” (Reuters) to “Momentum From Potential Covid-19 Drug Stays Intact(Yahoo!) to “Everything You Need to Know About Merck’s Game-Changing Covid Pill” (Bloomberg). Nearly every story cited data from Merck’s own press release, which claimed studies had shown an experimental oral drug had tremendous promise. From the Bloomberg article:

Of 385 patients who got the drug, 28 or 7.3% were hospitalized, compared with 53 out of 377 (14.1%) who got a placebo. Through day 29, no deaths were reported in patients who received molnupiravir, but eight died in the placebo arm.

Even the sainted Anthony Fauci conferred holy approval in Politico’s Fauci Sees Hope in New Merck Drug.” Declines in stock market prices early in the week even appeared attributed to the drug’s arrival, as investors whispered fears that a pill making a return to normal life possible might lead to imminent lessening of emergency support from the Federal Reserve, which of course would be a catastrophe for Wall Street. Modern America in a nutshell: if you want to identify truly good news, check if it triggers panic-selling.

The uniformly celebratory nature of coverage of the Merck product evoked memories of an infamous press episode in the early 2010s, when an alleged wonder drug called Tamiflu was pitched — by the CDC, among others — as being so effective in preventing hospitalizations for influenza that federal and state authorities ultimately spent over a billion dollars stockpiling what turned out to be a dubious treatment at best. In that case, too, a drugmaker called Roche claimed up to 50% reduction in deaths, sending governments and patients alike clamoring for supplies.

Now, too, the federal government has already agreed to pay $1.2 billion for a supply of molnupiravir, another ostensibly simple oral cure for a devastating virus. Although a five-day course reportedly only costs $17.74 to make, the Biden administration will be spending $712 a pop for enough pills to treat 1.7 million Covid-19 patients.

Though the Tamiflu episode reminds us that not every drug hailed by a drugmaker as a “huge advance” turns out to be one, it’s obviously very possible that molnupiravir turns out to be the game-changer its developers claim it is. If that’s the case, a lot of officials and journalists will have a lot of questions to answer, since this drug’s release may have been delayed by six months or more, after it became collateral damage last year to yet another idiotic Trump/anti-Trump culture war drama.

“It could have been out six months ago,” says Dr. Robert Kadlec, former assistant secretary for preparedness and response (ASPR) at the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS). “It would have been a game-changer… It would have saved tens of thousands of lives.”

The story about molnupiravir’s serpentine route toward approval is a textbook example of how politicians and press in the Trump era have fallen into a pattern of treating the exact same set of facts in different, even opposite ways, depending on whom they perceive to be the beneficiary of news.

Last year, when Trump was president, molnupiravir was bad, dangerous science, an evil twin to hydroxychloroquine:

Now, it’s a pharmaceutical superhero, coming to the rescue — literally a Thor-inspired drug, coming to “hammer” COVID:

If the drug does turn out to prevent death, a not-insignificant portion of the lives that were lost waiting for its arrival will be on the politicians and press figures who railed against it.

Molnupiravir, or EIDD-2801, was originally developed by scientists at Emory University in conjunction with a small pharmaceutical company called Ridgeback Biotherapeutics. Its original developers had diseases like Ebola in mind, but were hopeful of promising results against viruses in general.

“I was first briefed on the drug in October [of 2019],” says Kadlec. “And I thought, ‘That’s really interesting. Then when it all hit the fan in February with Covid-19, my thought was, ‘Let’s get this done.’”

The problem was how. By early spring of 2020, Trump administration officials like Kadlec say they were anxious to spend a full $100 million funding the development of the experimental drug then known as EIDD-2801, but this feeling was not unanimous within the national health bureaucracy.

Specifically, a fierce intramural battle had been brewing between Kadlec and HHS officials sympathetic to Kadlec, and a doctor named Rick Bright, who was the head at the time of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, or BARDA.

Kadlec was technically the boss of Bright, who first joined HHS in 2010 and became head of BARDA under Barack Obama. The former BARDA chief, who declined repeated requests to be interviewed for this article (though he followed me on Twitter after I sent him a DM query asking for comment), clashed with Trump appointees over a variety of issues. HHS officials had a spate of complaints, including that he was leaking to the news media (specifically, this Reuters article that came out on April 16, 2020), while Bright was supposedly unhappy over a variety of issues, from supply-chain preparedness to support for chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, ultimately filing a whistleblower complaint and testifying before congress.

The drug that was to become molnupiravir was central to Bright’s complaint. A crucial funding decision about EIDD-2801 was among the next items up for resolution when Kadlec, on Monday, April 20, 2020 — just days after the Reuters piece came out — arranged to have Bright reassigned to a position within the NIH, where he would ostensibly be running a new Covid testing program.

Bright had also just briefed Senator Roy Blunt the previous Friday about, among other things, diagnostics. Bright later said Kadlec and others told him his presentation to Blunt must have been great, because the Senator now wanted to give BARDA “billions of dollars of additional funding” to focus on a new Covid-19 testing program. This, Bright complained, was how he learned he’d been reassigned out of BARDA, ostensibly to join what became the NIH “shark tank” program, which used a venture-capital-like fund to develop a reliable Covid-19 test.

There were some at HHS who had, to put it gently, diffident feelings about Bright and wondered if the reassignment was too lucky a break for him, as he’d theoretically been put in line to replace then-NIH director Francis Collins, who just announced his retirement. Kadlec meanwhile characterizes the “shark tank” as something far removed from any kind of bureaucratic Siberia, saying, “He would have been a hero… We’d just arranged for him to spend a billion dollars.”

Bright obviously didn’t take it that way, and on April 22, 2020 announced his objection to his “involuntary transfer to a more limited and less impactful position” at the NIH, serving notice of his intention to file a full whistleblower complaint with the Office of Special Counsel.

The complaint he ended up filing charged Kadlec and others with corruption in trying to promote a “potentially harmful” drug for an unspecified personal gain. “Emails offer look into whistleblower charges of cronyism behind potential COVID-19 drug,” was the headline in Science last May 13th.

Bright was immediately hailed as a hero by the press. Reporters universally described him as a man of principle who’d taken a stand on behalf of “science” against the bleach-guzzling, witch-doctor profiteers at the Trump administration. Virtually every news outlet that covered the story found ways to denigrate the drug, as if its alleged political affiliation spoke to its scientific utility. Once again, political reporting took on the characteristics of prophecy, in this case apparently failed prophecy.

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