Our Antigens, Our Selves

In 2013 I wrote, Our DNA, Our Selves, arguing against the FDA’s crackdown on genetic readouts from firms like 23andMe. The FDA, however, proved succesful in its crackdown and that is why rapid at-home antigen tests are not available today and why tens of thousands of people are dying from COVID unnecessarily. Regulations have unintended consequences.

Let’s recap:

Consider, I swab the inside of my cheek and send the sample to a firm. The idea that the FDA can rule on what the firm can and cannot tell me about my own genes is absurd–it’s no different than the FDA trying to regulate what my doctor can tell me after a physical examination or what my optometrist can tell me after an eye examination (Please read the first line. “G T A C C A…”).

The idea that the FDA can regulate and control what individuals may learn about their own bodies is deeply offensive and, in my view, plainly unconstitutional.

Let me be clear, I am not offended by all regulation of genetic tests. Indeed, genetic tests are already regulated. To be precise, the labs that perform genetic tests are regulated by the Clinical Laboratory Improvement Amendments (CLIA) as overseen by the CMS (here is an excellent primer). The CLIA requires all labs, including the labs used by 23andMe, to be inspected for quality control, record keeping and the qualifications of their personnel. The goal is to ensure that the tests are accurate, reliable, timely, confidential and not risky to patients. I am not offended when the goal of regulation is to help consumers buy the product that they have contracted to buy.

What the FDA wants to do is categorically different. The FDA wants to regulate genetic tests as a high-risk medical device that cannot be sold until and unless the FDA permits it be sold.

Moreover, the FDA wants to judge not the analytic validity of the tests, whether the tests accurately read the genetic code as the firms promise (already regulated under the CLIA) but the clinical validity, whether particular identified alleles are causal for conditions or disease. The latter requirement is the death-knell for the products because of the expense and time it takes to prove specific genes are causal for diseases. Moreover, it means that firms like 23andMe will not be able to tell consumers about their own DNA but instead will only be allowed to offer a peek at the sections of code that the FDA has deemed it ok for consumers to see.

Ten years later we now need rapid antigen tests but the issue, as Michael Mina points out in an excellent interview with Malcolm Gladwell, is that we have medicalized all tests and readouts. Instead of thinking about the individual as having a right to know about their own body, we treated every test or readout as if the only user were a physician. Thus, instead of thinking about the value of these tests for individuals and for public health, the FDA failed to approve rapid antigen tests because it regarded them as inferior to PCR tests, for a physician diagnosing disease.

Here’s Mina (roughly transcribed and lightly edited)

The only pathway that we have to evaluate tests like this are medical diagnostic pathways, pathways designed specifically to ensure that a physician like a detective is getting all the information they need to diagnose a sick person… We have so devalued and defunded public health…that we don’t have a regulatory pathway to approve a test whose primary objective is stopping an epidemic versus diagnosing a sick person. And that has held everything up. All the companies that could be producing these rapid tests in the millions and millions, they have been sitting on these tests trying to hone them so they can pass FDA standards as a medical diagnostic.

It’s not just slowing down their approval it’s actually bottle necking the companies into creating tests that are not going to be as scalable as they are having to use more expensive reagents and packing the tests with instruments so they can pass FDA review when in reality they are just these little pieces of papers. If we can do the cheap version they can be made very fast but the just won’t get through the FDA.

Gladwell: I find your explanation unconvincing. How dumb is the FDA?…If you make the exact argument you made to me…the FDA is not going to see your logic?

It’s not that they are not smart it’s that this is a regulatory body, they just don’t have a pathway. You can’t apply for approval for a public health test tool…In our country the medical establishment is extremely strong, you can’t go to get a cholesterol test without getting a prescription from your doctor. Why can’t we know that? It’s all through this very heavy medical lens and changing that, getting that big ship to turn is turning out to be a very, very difficult task but leading to potentially tens or hundreds or thousands of deaths that don’t need to be happening.


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